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Gaming deal may eliminate city fees

The deal's a long shot, but if expanded gambling flies, a nonprofit company could give the city money it needs.

By MATTHEW WAITE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 23, 2002

PORT RICHEY -- City Manager Vince Lupo dreams of the future where Port Richey doesn't tax people because a nonprofit gambling company gives the city all the money it needs.

Call it a long shot, but Lupo and Mollie Kolokithas, the maternal head of the Kolokithas family gambling operation, believe that if the Legislature is going to expand gambling, Port Richey might have an idea that could benefit cities and counties throughout the state.

The two said at a news conference Friday that they want to form a nonprofit company, run by the Kolokithas family and governed by a board that includes elected officials. The nonprofit would run a gambling parlor on Port Richey's waterfront that would allow the same games that parimutuel sites might get with legislative change, and with the same scrutiny, just without the requirement of a dog or horse track or jai alai fronton.

After operating expenses, the proceeds of the Port Richey gambling parlor would go to city coffers. The city makes money, the Kolokithas family keeps gamblers in Port Richey. Beyond that, details haven't been worked out.

"It deserves a lot of discussion and analysis," Lupo said Friday. "And maybe the people in Tallahassee should take heed."

The only thing the nonprofit needs to exist: major changes to Florida law, perhaps a constitutional amendment, and probably a bit of luck.

Legislative leaders and the governor have dangled the idea of expanded gambling, but details are sparse and support among legislators appears to be lukewarm at best. The most likely plan allows video lottery terminals at existing gambling sites.

What makes video lottery more likely than limited casino games is because the Florida Constitution already allows it under the existing lottery law. Any other expansion of gambling would require voters to approve a constitutional amendment allowing more gambling. Similar measures have been shot down three times.

And Port Richey wouldn't benefit from video lottery, even if it were allowed outside of parimutuel sites. By law, all lottery proceeds go to education -- which is why legislators are considering it in the first place, with untold billions to be spent on reducing class sizes.

Incoming state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said he applauds Port Richey for looking for ways to make money without taxes, but he's not real excited about expanded gambling and wouldn't support it outside of existing parimutuel sites.

"This is far from even close to happening," Fasano said of any expanded gambling. And it's going to be "extremely difficult" to make Port Richey's idea happen.

For both Port Richey and the Kolokithas family, the nonprofit gambling parlor idea is a hedge against an uncertain future.

The Legislature has a budget shortfall to deal with even before considering the class-size amendment spending, and Lupo figures there won't be much generosity from Tallahassee for a while.

For the Kolokithas family, they're worried that the state will cut into their cruise-to-nowhere business by allowing casino games at parimutuel sites. The family runs Port Richey Casinos, which used to be known as Paradise of Port Richey after carrying the SunCruz name, and has been in Port Richey since 1995.

Mollie Kolokithas admits they could make more money without the nonprofit, but the nonprofit is a way to keep business from going elsewhere while helping the city prosper.

"We're not interested in megabucks," she said. "We want stability. But we also look at the needs of Port Richey."

Kolokithas said she just wanted a chance to compete with other gambling sites.

"Leave us at least a level playing field," she said.

Even before the Legislature has its say, Port Richey's City Council will decide if this is even something the city wants. Lupo said he can't poll council members -- it's against the law -- and there weren't many details to share yet.

Council member Dale Massad sat in on the news conference and said, "At first blush, it sounds wonderful," especially in the face of a city budget crunch that had them considering getting rid of the Police Department.

"With the budget that we're facing . . . I think we'd be absolutely negligent to not look at every avenue," he said.

-- Matthew Waite covers Port Richey city government. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is .

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