Seven years after slots began spinning in Broward County, there’s a plan in place to bring them to Dania Jai-Alai.
A combination of South American investors and local businessmen completed a $65.5 million purchase from Boyd Gaming Wednesday, and Mayor Walter Duke says their representatives have told him they’re eager to begin converting the 60-year-old building into a racino similar to those already here in South Florida.
“We’re very optimistic,” Duke said. “Anything is better than what’s there now.”
Broward County voters approved slots in 2005. Boyd Gaming bought the fronton in 2006 for $152 million, about the time the three other racinos in Broward had the machines installed. But Boyd held off, citing the state’s 50 percent slot tax (now lowered to 35 percent) and overwhelming competition from the nearby Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood.
In 2011, Boyd announced a sale to Dania Entertainment Center LLC for $80 million, but the deal fell through. The four buyers were listed as Harris Friedman, Louis Birdman, Barton Seidler and Steven Levy.
Birdman, Seidler, Levy and others are listed as 25 percent owners now under Dania Entertainment Holdings, LLC, according to a March organization chart submitted to the state. The other 75 percent are Argentine businessmen, who operate 27 casinos, under the name “Casino Club” in Argentina.
The fronton has continued offering jai-alai throughout the sale process, and also has a poker room. But public interest in jai-alai has waned, and the poker room’s revenues, while increasing more than 50 percent so far this year when compared to 2012, still ranks 22nd of the state’s 23 horse tracks, dog tracks and jai-alai frontons. The company must run 150 jai-alai sessions a year to keep its slot license.
Long-time fronton general manager Dave Winslow said he has not been asked to stay and is working as a consultant in Las Vegas.
Duke noted that Boyd did not renovate the property while trying to sell it. But Birdman has met with the city a few times in recent weeks, Duke said, and indicated there are plans to move quickly and spend $60 million to $80 million in refurbishing and adding slots. Neither Birdman nor any of the South American businessmen were available to comment Wednesday.
But during its first attempt to purchase the fronton, Dania Entertainment released renderings that included restaurants, night clubs and a day club with pool and cabanas. The plans also included reducing fronton seating from 5,000 to 1,800 and using the court for live entertainment.
“The important thing is to move forward, clean the place up and that it becomes an active part of the community again,” said Duke, who noted the fronton hosted his 1978 graduation from Hollywood Hills High School. “We think it will help provide jobs and increase tourism.”
A lawsuit filed by Bill Scherer, of the law firm Conrad and Scherer, is suing Dania Beach over the project, objecting over to the expediency with which Dania Beach officials approved the project. The suit is still pending, Duke said.
Boyd Gaming, which operates 22 casinos across the country, may still be a player in Florida. Last year, Florida Panthers CEO Michael Yormark announced a partnership with the company in an attempt to build a casino at the BB&T Center in Sunrise. Casinos not affiliated with Indian tribes or pari-mutuels are not legal in Florida, but Las Vegas companies are working to bring destination-style casinos to the state.