Port Canaveral pursues land-side gambling

Port Canaveral, where gambling ships have been squeezed by a deep recession and increased competition from inland casinos, thinks it has a way to breathe new life into the business: Let the slot machines spin while the ships are docked.

The Canaveral Port Authority voted Wednesday to ask state lawmakers to allow nearly around-the-clock gaming on gambling ships at the Brevard County seaport. Currently, gaming ships must go out to sea 3 miles, outside U.S. territorial waters, before customers can start gambling.

Under the plan – which is being lobbied for by Canaveral’s two existing cruise-to-nowhere operators, SunCruz Casino and Las Vegas Casino Lines – as many as three ships would be allowed to run their gaming operations from 7 a.m. until 2 a.m. every day at the port.

Boosters said the move could boost gaming traffic by 30 percent at a port where casino-ship traffic has fallen 41 percent since 2006. Dockside gambling, they said, would also add another 150 jobs to the 600 already tied to the gaming vessels.

„I’m not here to legislate ideas about whether gambling is morally right,“ said Commissioner Ralph Kennedy, one of the concept’s chief boosters on the port authority. „I don’t think that’s our issue. Our issue is creating jobs.“

But the plan faces long odds. It will almost certainly generate intense opposition in the state Capitol from evangelical groups, competing parimutuels and the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which runs its own casinos.

The Republican-ruled Florida Legislature has also long opposed gambling initiatives, though gambling backers are hoping that resistance will soften amid the state’s deep budget woes. Top GOP lawmakers, for instance, are now considering blessing Republican Gov. Charlie Crist’s compact with the Seminole Tribe granting the tribe the right to operate Las Vegas-style slots and card games such as blackjack.

What’s more, Port Canaveral could face opposition from its signature cruise tenant: Disney Cruise Line, whose parent company has historically fought efforts to expand gambling in Florida. Unlike rival cruise operators Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, Disney opted not to include on-board casinos when it built its two cruise ships.

Disney, which recently signed a 15-year contract extension to continue sailing out of Canaveral, was never briefed by the port on the gambling plan. A company spokeswoman said Disney is only beginning to examine the proposal.

„This is an issue we’re just learning about and we’re looking into it further,“ spokeswoman Rena Langley said.