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Dania Beach Jai-Alai fronton may find rescue in slots

The world's fastest ballgame once attracted more than 10,000 cheering fans a night to Dania Beach. Dania Jai-Alai players now perform before a sea of empty seats -- the crowd's roar diminished to scattered applause.

The exotic sport clings to life in the United States with Dania one of just five jai-alai arenas, called frontons, left in the country.

Coins clanging out of slot machines could soon resuscitate Dania Jai-Alai and rejuvenate interest in the sport. Any renovation could dramatically affect the city it's called home for 52 years, from downtown redevelopment to traffic to property taxes. The homeowners living around the 49-acre Dania Jai-Alai property are nervously watching, some fearing they will be in the shadow of a mini-Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.

What Dania Jai-Alai's 220,000-square-foot fronton could metamorphose into remains a mystery. The man who controls its destiny, Dania Jai-Alai president Steve Snyder, isn't talking about possible plans, saying any discussion before the state Legislature approves slots legislation is premature.

"We would envision [Dania Jai-Alai] becoming an important entertainment center where we can showcase our sport, which has shrunk considerably from its heyday," Snyder said. "We would like to see it returned to its glory days ... We would hope to be the showcase in the world for jai-alai."

Dania Jai-Alai's average paid attendance of 600 people a day doesn't fill 15 percent of its auditorium. The fronton's handle -- the total amount wagered -- dropped from $50.8 million for the 1995-96 season to $39.4 million last season, state records show. At jai-alai's peak in 1987, the fronton had a four-month handle of $51 million, said John Knox, Dania Jai's vice president and general manager.

The state lottery, Indian casinos, cruises to nowhere, other South Florida sports and televised sporting events all cut into jai-alai business through the years, Snyder said. In 1998, Dania Jai-Alai officials filed papers to close, then changed their minds after the state Legislature agreed to alter how frontons were taxed.

The fronton currently is "marginally profitable," Snyder said. Poker and its recent revival has provided a boost.

Snyder holds a 68 percent controlling interest in Dania Jai-Alai's privately held parent company, The Aragon Group. The Aragon Group currently has no licensing agreements for developing the property, thought to be Dania Beach's largest parcel of land and one of the county's largest so close to the ocean, Snyder said.

He has shown a willingness to deal with a major casino company in the past. Just weeks before voters rejected a 1994 referendum to allow gambling at the state's pari-mutuels, The Aragon Group reached a licensing deal with Station Casinos Inc., a publicly traded casino company, county records show.

The agreement giving Station Casinos first rights to discuss developing the property expired in 2000, Knox said.

Dania Beach City Manager Ivan Pato said he thinks a major casino company again will join up with The Aragon Group.

"The best thing that could happen for us is to see the redevelopment of the site into something other than what it is today," Pato said. "Everybody is talking about slots and education, but this isn't about slots for us. It's about redevelopment and revitalization."

Pato said that if Broward County's pari-mutuels receive favorable legislation, he foresees the fronton's renovation will "create a destination not unlike the Hard Rock." The Hard Rock casino west of Hollywood has a 135,000-square-foot casino, a 500-room hotel and a 300,000-square-foot shopping and entertainment district.

A revitalized Dania Jai-Alai could force Dania Beach to rethink its downtown redevelopment, shifting the focus from the Federal Highway corridor west of the property to the Dania Beach Boulevard corridor where the fronton is, Pato said.

Once renowned for its antique district, downtown Dania Beach along Federal Highway is now dotted with empty, aging storefronts. Patty Hart, a local real estate agent and longtime Dania Beach resident, estimates around 50,000 square feet of space is available in the city's downtown.

Nearly 14.8 million vehicles a year -- a daily average of 40,500 -- drive on the stretch of Federal Highway near Dania Beach Boulevard, according to Florida Department of Transportation studies. A revived Dania Jai-Alai is sure to boost those numbers as well as traffic on side streets.

Homes surround the fronton on the east, west and north, and residents fear cars cutting through the neighborhood would make it difficult for them to get in and out of the area.

Homeowner M.P. Malone said city officials have pushed for the fronton to operate 24 hours a day, hoping to even out traffic flow, but that means increased noise problems.

She's also concerned about what will happen to the 2,200-space parking lot buffering the fronton from her neighborhood as well as an undeveloped 22 acres owned by The Aragon Group just north of the fronton.

Hart said she would prefer to see Dania Jai-Alai's back property used for residential, rather than commercial, purposes. She said she fears Snyder will push to have that land zoned for multi-family buildings rather than single-family homes.

"We want to know what's going on, when it's going to happen and how much input we have to put into it," she said. "We have to live here. The developer comes in here, builds and he's gone."

Snyder said a revitalized Dania Jai-Alai would act as a stimulus for the downtown area, increasing the city's tax base.

Pato said such an increase could help hold down homeowners' tax rates.

"If we don't redevelop in this town, the residents will face nothing but higher ad valorem tax rates," he said. "Costs have been rising at a pretty alarming rate the past year or two, and without redevelopment it would be impossible to hold [down] our taxes."

Under the agreement between the pari-mutuels and their respective Broward County cities, Dania Beach will receive anywhere from 1.7 percent to 2.5 percent of the fronton's slots revenue, Pato said.

But a large chunk of that money will have to fund additional public safety personnel and equipment. Pato said that if Dania Jai-Alai stays open 24 hours, the city will require 12 to 14 new firefighters and up to a dozen new Broward sheriff's deputies.

If Dania Jai-Alai generates just $100 million in revenue, the $1.7 million received by the city would barely cover costs, Pato said.

Until slots legislation is passed, Dania Beach residents await what comes next. Among them is Pastor Anthony Tomasulo. His Resurrection Catholic Church is just across the street from the fronton and next to the vacant 22-acre parcel.

He fears what he could be looking at outside his church windows. Morally against gambling, he said he's nevertheless found Dania Jai-Alai to be a good neighbor.

"I don't know what [Snyder's] hand is, and maybe he is purposely keeping his hand closed because of public relations," he said. "The bottom line is money."

Jon Burstein can be reached at jburstein@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4491.

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