Fontainebleau might have gambling on its mind

Jeffrey Soffer already has construction crews building a Fontainebleau casino in Las Vegas. Is he putting the finishing touches on one in Miami Beach, too?

With Friday’s news of a secret push for a change in Florida’s Constitution allowing gambling at the oceanfront resort, the real-estate magnate’s ambitious plans and hires at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach can be seen in a new light.

For the oceanfront icon he bought in 2005, Soffer recruited some top executives from the Vegas Strip — including former Mandalay Bay honcho Glenn Schaeffer, who once played himself on the NBC show Casino.

The two formed a Vegas company to oversee construction of a new Fontainebleau casino on the Strip and used the Vegas model of a self-contained resort to guide the USD 500 million renovation wrapping up now at the Miami Beach property.

Scheduled to open next month, the new Fontainebleau has 11 restaurants and bars, 200,000 square feet of meeting space, 1,500 guest rooms, and a 40,000-square-foot spa — the kind of large, flashy footprint favored by Vegas hotels.

It’s „the concept of a total destination resort, with or without casinos,“ Schaeffer said when he and Soffer announced their partnership in 2005. „We’ve been pretty good at it at Mandalay.“

From the start, Soffer and Schaeffer said their plans for the Fontainebleau Miami Beach did not include casinos. And the new gambling push comes not from them, but from a Miami developer hoping to bring a casino to a commercial complex planned for the downtown area.

But the language of the draft constitutional amendment would allow gambling at the proposed Miami Worldcenter and any hotel in Miami Beach with more than 800 rooms — a qualification that only the Fontainebleau meets.

A top Fontainebleau Resorts executive, Howard Karawan, said Friday his staff has talked with organizers of the push and that Fontainebleau Resorts is helping finance consumer research on „general feelings about gambling.“

Even so, Karawan, the company’s chief operating officer, insisted gambling was never part of the plan for the Fontainebleau’s nearly three-year renovation.

„Not one square inch of this place was designed with any thought of gambling,“ he said.

Soffer declined to be interviewed Friday, saying his attention was on the Miami Beach reopening, which has been postponed several times by construction delays. But he described casinos as the one element of the Vegas model the Fontainebleau lacks.

„It has everything but gambling, no question,“ he said.

The Fontainebleau has been a central player in Miami-Dade’s past gambling fights. Former owner Stephen Muss led a drive to bring casino gaming to the county in 1986, but Florida voters said no — as they did in 1978 and 1994.

„If you say gambling in Miami, the Fontainebleau has always been the No. 1 place where it fits,“ said Lisa Cole, the hotel’s publicity director from 1979 to 2005. „Because of the massive size of the hotel lobby and foyer. Even the lobby bar — that would be a great casino bar.“

Should economic woes prompt voters to reconsider, South Florida may not have to look far to see a potential model for a Fontainebleau casino.

Soffer recruited Karawan from a top position at Kerzner International, owner of the Atlantis resort on Nassau’s Paradise Island.

That family-friendly resort — home to a condo-hotel complex built by the Soffer family’s Turnberry Associates — boasts a self-contained complex of shops and restaurants. But it also has a sprawling casino that substitutes the Caribbean model of gambling for the Vegas one.

At the Atlantis casino, natural light pours in from bay windows, a no-no in Sin City, where night turns to day unnoticed among the tables and slot machines.

„We refer to it as amenity gambling, where it’s there as an entertainment alternative. It adds [to], but it doesn’t carry the operation,“ said Scott Berman, a hospitality analyst and head of PricewaterhouseCooper’s Miami office. „We’re not talking about Las Vegas.“