Residents to vote on introducing slot machines at Bonita greyhound track

Should slot machines be installed at the Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Track?

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Brian Bigelow Lee County Commission

Brian Bigelow Lee County Commission

Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann on NewsMakers 10-30-11

Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann on NewsMakers 10-30-11

Video from NBC-2

— Slot machines may be ringing their way into Bonita Springs.

Lee County Commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday to approve a referendum for residents to voice their opinion on slot machines at the Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Track on the November ballot. Now Izzy Havenick and his family — owners of the Bonita Springs-based track — intend to begin an immediate campaign to urge support from Lee County residents.

“This is a big victory. We’re very grateful for the county commissioners leadership and guidance to allow the voters to decide,” Havenick said. “My family and I look forward to spending the next five months speaking to everyone in Lee County about how we will create new jobs.”

Even if voters approve the measure in November, state legislators would still have to pass a law allowing slot machines at the track and at other facilities.

More than 100 slot machine supporters arrived at the meeting on two buses. They wore green T-shirts with “Lee Says Yes” embossed on the front and “Jobs for Lee” on the back.

Other residents against the slot machines modestly wore buttons saying “No Organized Gambling.”

Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson, Councilwoman Martha Simon, City Manager Carl Schwing and Economic Development Council Executive Director Christine Ross all attended speaking in favor of putting the issue to a countywide vote.

The public hearing lasted about two hours. Commissioner Brian Bigelow spoke in favor of the referendum, while Commissioner Frank Mann dissented. Commissioners Ray Judah, Tammy Hall and John Manning, didn’t speak about it.

“Even though it’s an isolated building in Bonita, what we have there is we’ve created the first casino in Lee County,” Mann said of the track. “It equates to the first step that’s going to get Lee County into the full blown casino business.”

Mann, like other residents against the slot machines, fears they would negatively affect the community’s family-oriented lifestyle.

Havenick handed commissioners a document with 1,500 signatures in support of the slot machines. Allowing slot machines at the pari-mutuel facility would create 500 jobs, he said.

But naysayers believe the $50- million- to- $80-million project would do anything but make Lee County a better place. Roy Hyman, a Bonita Springs resident who spoke at the public hearing, said he lived in Atlantic City, N.J. and witnessed the adverse affects of gambling there.

“What you hear today isn’t the actual truth,” Hyman said. “See the stats for yourself. See what it does to a community, not just in Atlantic City,but everywhere.”

Havenick, whose family also owns Magic City Casino in Miami, said the casino created 1,000 jobs and has bolstered the local economy. Lee County will also benefit from the profits slot machines generate, he said.

“We will give the county 1.5 percent of the gross earnings,” Havenick said. “We’re doing this voluntarily because it’s not only a review of our footprint in our community, but it’s important they get a piece, too.”

Lee is not the only county in the state wrestling with a referendum authorizing slot machines. Hamilton, Gadsden and Washington counties, all in the Florida Panhandle, have recently approved similar referendums.

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