South Florida’s floating-gaming industry may be running out of luck.
SeaEscape Entertainment, the only gaming vessel left at Port Everglades, on Monday informed Broward County its last sailings from Port Everglades will be Sunday. In recent months, Horizon’s Edge Casino Cruises and Aquasino have ceased operations in Miami-Dade County.
And Palm Beach Princess is on the auction block — raising the possibility that a buyer may want to relocate the vessel from Port of Palm Beach. If that happens, it could leave SunCruz Casinos in Key Largo the only remaining floating-gambling business in South Florida.
Once the only game in town for gamblers wanting a fix of slots or table games, the so-called cruise-to-nowhere operators are the big losers in the Seminoles‘ expansion into Las Vegas-style gaming and the addition of slots at Broward racetracks. Miami-Dade parimutuels got voter approval this year to add slots, too.
„Those boats, in my view, are finito, finished, over,“ said David O. Ehlers, a Las Vegas investment advisor who follows gaming operators.
Added Joseph Weinert, a gaming analyst with Spectrum Gaming Group: „I think the [state’s] compact with the Seminoles, so long as that’s in force, takes away any competitive advantage the boats have.“
SeaEscape, in a letter to Broward County commissioners Monday, said it was ending operations at Port Everglades on Sunday because of a number of factors, said port director Phil Allen. SeaEscape, in the letter, cited shore-side competition, the economy and high operating costs at the port for its decision to call it quits, Allen said.
Mum on Plans
SeaEscape Mark Lipof declined to comment on the company’s plans, saying it would make a „big announcement“ at Tuesday’s Broward County Commission meeting.
Discussion among crew is that SeaEscape will leave for Port Canaveral. The Port Canaveral Commission is holding a special meeting Tuesday to talk about „industry interest in Port Canaveral regarding day cruises and shorter cruises,“ a spokeswoman said in an e-mail. She declined to comment on SeaEscape.
Asked about the odds of Port Everglades finding a gaming-boat operator to replace SeaEscape, Allen called it „less than even.“
„I think the models that are out there aren’t working,“ Allen said. „That’s not to say someone won’t develop a new model.“
SeaEscape, while current on payments to the port, had failed to maintain reserves. That prompted the port to terminate a wharfage agreement with SeaEscape and require SeaEscape to pay fees in advance, Allen said.
Another sign SeaEscape may have cash-flow issues: Some crew claim they haven’t been paid their salaries. Miami maritime lawyer Ross B. Toyne last week sued M/V Island Adventure, SeaEscape’s vessel, on behalf of six crew members.
„SeaEscape don’t pay us,“ said Antonio Flores, a bartender from Lima, Peru, in broken English. Flores claimed he hadn’t received two months‘ salary. „They don’t have solution. We’re very worried about it.“
Lipof, SeaEscape’s spokesman, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
SeaEscape isn’t the first gaming boat in Broward to have problems. St. Tropez Casino Cruises went bankrupt three years ago, a month after SunCruz Casinos stopped sailing in Hollywood.
Aquasino, formerly the Atlantic Casino, folded in June after trying to make a go of it at Miami Beach Marina.
Robert Christoph Sr., president of the company that owns the marina, said he’s already leased the space to a megayacht broker.
„The gaming-boat business was always somewhat handicapped,“ Christoph said. Passengers must spend four or five hours on a boat, a curse for someone who has been unlucky. By the same token, Christoph noted, a passenger with a hot hand has to stop playing once the boat returns to state territorial waters.
Aquasino is now being sued by some former employees, who allege tips from customers were used to pay wages of managers. An Aquasino official didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The employees‘ lawyer, Peter Valori of Miami, also is representing about 70 former employees of Horizon’s Edge, who claim they weren’t given 60 days notice as required by federal regulations before the vessel stopped sailing in May.
„Both of these cases arise out of the same market conditions,“ Valori said. „It seems to me the industry is waning and may disappear completely. I don’t see how they are going to survive.“ Horizon’s Edge officials didn’t return calls.
Mark Calvert, the bankruptcy trustee overseeing an auction of the Palm Beach Princess, which operates from Port of Palm Beach, isn’t ready to predict the industry’s death in South Florida. Four of five parties interested in the vessel want to maintain operations at the port, he said.
„The highest and best use for that vessel is as a gaming vessel right where she’s at,“ Calvert said, noting the Seminoles don’t offer craps or sports betting. An auction last month failed to lead to a sale. Another auction for the vessel is planned for Aug. 28.