MIAMI (AP) -- Sun-drenched Miami has beaches, South Beach nightspots, a new stadium for the Miami Marlins and athletic superstars like LeBron James.
But nearly 300,000 people there are out of work after hard hits from the recession and the collapse of Florida's real estate market.
Now, some big-money backers are touting a new attraction that promises to boost jobs: Casinos.
They argue Miami can become a shimmering East Coast version of Las Vegas, generating a spark for the state's stalled economy. Miami's selling points, they argue, could help the area transform itself into a serious rival to Vegas.
Malaysia-based Genting Group, which runs a massive casino in Singapore, is so sure about the possibility that it has already spent nearly a half-billion dollars to acquire property in downtown Miami. The group has ambitious plan to alter the Miami skyline with a sprawling $3.8 billion complex designed to look like coral.
That sounds good to people like Michael Ferrarelli, who right now just has a part-time job at the Miami Dolphins stadium.
"With the economy the way it is and so many people out of work right now, it's the best way to boost the economy," Ferrarelli said. "You're going to bring thousands of jobs into each location."
The serious amount of money already spent by Genting has sparked the interest of other Las Vegas casino operators, not to mention those who already own sports facilities in South Florida.
This new vision for Miami, however, will require approval from the Republican-led Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott. Casino backers have already begun a full-tilt lobbying effort and it appears the debate over gambling will be one of the biggest issues lawmakers deal with during the session that starts next month.
It would be tempting to think lawmakers are eager to go along, as Florida grapples with a 10 percent unemployment rate.
But that's not the case.
The initial bill filed by two South Florida legislators' calls for each company wanting a casino to spend a minimum of $2 billion. It has won the backing of builders and contractors as well as one of the state's big business lobbying outfits.
But a diverse coalition- ranging from Disney World, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and existing dog and horse track owners worried about their future - want lawmakers to reject the concept.
They contend such a massive proposal will harm the businesses already here because the promises of luring thousands of tourists from across the country and world won't pan out. They point to Nevada's struggling economy as proof that gambling is not what's needed to turn around the state.
"The reason these billion dollar casinos want to leave Atlantic City and Las Vegas is that they know Florida is growing," said Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber. "It would be a fundamental mistake for us to fall for that bet."
Floridians already spend a lot on gambling. The state-controlled lottery racked up more than $4 billion in sales during the last fiscal year and state economists say the existing pari-mutuels and Indian gaming generate another $3 billion.
Genting officials contend that adding three new mega-casinos could generate anywhere from $4.5 billion to $7 billion more, double what is happening in the state now.
Colin Au, head of Genting Americas, stood recently before a state Senate committee and made elaborate promises to back that figure up. He said his company would make sure to lure travelers from as far away as Asia by guaranteeing to purchase half the seats on nonstop flights across the Pacific. He tried to assuage fears that his resort would compete with Disney World by saying his hotel would sell tens of thousands of tickets to the theme park.
Au also disputed claims his resort would harm existing restaurants and hotels.
"We are spreading the cake all over the place," Au said.
But this optimistic take on casinos isn't shared by some who follow the gambling industry.
Janet Brashear, a Wall Street analyst, has concluded that South Florida casinos could succeed in attracting tourists, possibly to the detriment of both Atlantic City and Las Vegas.
But Brashear, of Bernstein Research, doubts that the state can support what is now envisioned. She warns that Florida is a not a "clean slate" and that it would have to become larger than Las Vegas to support a return on the level of investment mandated by the legislation.
The level of opposition that has mounted against the casino proposal so far may doom it this year.
Lawmakers appear split and Scott has avoided taking a direct stance. The governor came into office last January promising to jumpstart the state's economy but so far he has merely stated that he does not want the state budget to be more reliant on gambling revenue.
That's not what's on Ellen Tringali's mind.
To her it's still about the jobs.
Standing in line next to Michael Ferrarelli at a recent job fair at a jai-alai that is expanding to include slots and blackjack, the 47-year-old Hollywood resident said she's been looking for work since 2009. She said she took a slot machine repair course because the competition for jobs in her previous field, secretarial work, was too fierce.
"We're hoping," Tringali said. "It seems like the economy the way it is, gaming in South Florida seems to be something that's picking up."
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