FLORIDA CITY -- Officials of this South Dade town have approved construction of a 34,000-square-foot jai alai fronton facility they say will strengthen their economy.
If approved by the state, the property's owner, Ft. Myers Real Estate Holdings, also plans to add a quarter-horse racing track.
"This gives people another reason to stop on the way out [of the Florida Keys]," said Otis Wallace, mayor of Florida City, which sometimes bills itself as "The Gateway to the Keys."
The 20-acre property is located just east of the Florida Keys Outlet Center, formerly known as Prime Outlets of Florida City.
Jai alai is played in a three-walled court with a rubber ball. It can be played in singles and doubles and is noted for ball speed. Officials have recorded ball speeds over 150 miles per hour. The game is used as a basis for pari-mutuel gambling.
Wallace said he expects the construction phase of the project to add 175 jobs. Once opened, the facility will maintain 75 to 100 jobs. With the hopeful addition of a horse track, that number could increase to 200 jobs, he said.
With the city's approval, the developers can now begin seeking the proper permits and operating licenses from the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering. Wallace said a jai alai permit was secured but the company is still seeking an additional permit for horse racing.
City documents show the project will be developed in two phases over the course of six years. The first phase will include the fronton, a poker room and a machine game playing area, according to city documents.
The second phase will consist of a multi-story parking garage, if needed.
The developer also agreed to employ locals as much as possible throughout the project. The deal also makes Florida City's police department the exclusive law enforcement agency for additional security when necessary.
The fronton is expected to open before next year's winter tourist season.
Before approving the project, the city's council also passed a resolution that requires any machine games to be centralized in town.
"We want to centralize them if they are going to be in the city, in some locations where the police know where they are located," City Planning Director Henry Iler said at the city's June 26 meeting, according to documents provided by the city.
An estimated two million people travel through Florida City each year to get to the Keys, and Wallace wants his city to keep capitalizing on that.
"The Keys are very alluring," he said.
He said he hopes he can lure travelers to dine in local restaurants and fill beds at area hotels.
Wallace said he expects locals in Dade and Monroe County to frequent the facility, but its target customers are those headed to and from the Keys.
A part-owner of Ft. Myers Real Estate Holdings did not return a phone call seeking comment.