When Glenn Richards, 85 percent owner of Richmond Entertainment, Inc., decided to build a Jai-Alai fronton and poker card room in Hamilton County, he didn't expect the storms that would hit the county - weather-wise or controversy-wise.
Richards presented his plan to the Hamilton County Commissioners for a proposed Jai-Alai fronton and a simulcast room to be located in the county first, with a horse-racing track to be built at a later date.
The Board of County Commissioners then called for a special election to be held on Oct. 7, 2003, to allow the public the opportunity to decide whether to accept or reject pari-mutuel wagering in the county. According to county attorney John McCormick, the last time a special election of this kind relating to this issue occurred was almost 30 years ago.
There was a considerable amount of controversy over the issue of gambling versus jobs. Local residents led by the Hamilton County Ministerial Alliance were vocal about the effects gambling would have on the community, particularly the youth. The Y.E.S. - Your Economic Strength - contingent felt that the fronton would attract other businesses, such as hotels, restaurants and shops to the area.
In the end economics ruled. The people of the county voted in favor of pari-mutuel wagering, with a margin of over 500 votes. Following the vote, the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering granted Richmond Entertainment, Inc. a permit to conduct pari-mutuel wagering at a Jai-Alai facility in Hamilton County.
The company received all the necessary permits from the county for the construction of the Jai-Alai fronton in October of 2004. Construction of the 42,000 square foot building began soon afterwards.
The 7-million dollar facility is located on 35 acres at the junction of I-75 and US Hwy 129. According to developer Glenn Richards, the distance between Hamilton County and other pari-mutuel facilities was a deciding factor in the selection of the site. The location was also central to interstate access from the north and the south on I-75, and from the east and the west via I-10, which is approximately nine miles away. Although Jasper is the closest town to the fronton, Live Oak is 12 miles to the south, Lake City, is 27 miles to the south and Valdosta, Ga., is 39 miles to the north.
Then in November, 2004, Richards ran into opposition again. The Hamilton County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 against his application for a cardroom to be included in the construction of the fronton. According to Richards, the cardroom was presented as a possibility at the onset of the Jai-Alai proposal and subsequent approval by the voters in 2003.
In January 2005, the county commissioners rejected the cardroom license a second time but voted to allow the issue to be decided by the voters in a special election. On March 8, 2005, economics again won with a vote of almost 2-1 in favor of the cardroom.
The storms of controversy were not the only ones to delay the construction of the fronton/cardroom. Four major storms crossed Florida during 2004 causing flooding in many areas of the county.
The fronton/cardroom was scheduled to open in July but construction was slow due to the saturated condition of the ground. Each subsequent rainfall further slowed construction or halted it completely.
Although the facility was not completed, Hamilton Jai-Alai and Poker hosted a charity benefit on Aug. 18 for Hamilton County Housing for Humanity. Over 400 guests enjoyed the sneak preview of the fronton/cardroom while Jai-Alai players and card dealers demonstrated their skills.
Although there are more Jai-Alai frontons in Florida than in any other place in the world, it has been 22 years since a new fronton has been built in the United States. The new Hamilton Jai-Alai and Poker will feature live Jai-Alai games and a limited stakes card room with 35 card tables.
Currently there are approximately 115 employees. More employees will be needed when a restaurant and a simulcast room open. An up-scale restaurant is scheduled to open later this year as part of the facility. The simulcast room which will offer pari-mutuel wagering on horse and dog races should be completed in February 2006.
Wages will average $11 per hour for hourly employees. Card dealers receive tips, so their salary is dependent on their performance at the tables. Based on the salaries of dealers at other cardrooms, a dealer may make as much as $25 to $30 per hour.
Although many Jai-Alai frontons have closed in the last ten years due to falling revenues, Richards feels confident that Hamilton Jai-Alai and Poker will be an asset to the county.
"I wouldn't build this facility and spend all this money if I didn't believe it would be successful," he said. "I have every confidence in my management team and our employees that we will provide excellent entertainment for our guests, who will want to come back again and again."
Hamilton County officials also anticipate economic growth with the potential development of restaurants, hotels and shopping areas that could create hundreds of jobs. According to Hamilton County Coordinator Bob Poor, he has talked to one developer who is considering the county as the location for a 120-room hotel.
The fronton/cardroom will also increase the county's tax base. According to Richards, the county will receive a 2% tax on everything wagered, as well as taxes on food and beverages sold at the fronton.
When Hamilton Jai-Alai and Poker is completed, Richards will set his sights on a track for quarterhorse racing and a facility where thoroughbreds could be housed. He plans to build a 10-million dollar horse race track near the intersection of US Hwy. 6 and I-75, based on the availability of water supply and sewer management.