FOR decades, this island town across Biscayne Bay from Miami became the glamorous Promised Land for much of the East Coast every winter. Now, after years of decline in tourism, Miami Beach is struggling over its future.
Hoteliers here -- looking for a way once again to lure tourists south of Disney World in Orlando -- are sponsoring a statewide, multimillion-dollar drive to give each county the option of allowing casinos at hotels with 500 rooms or more.
The effort had its genesis in a 1978 statewide referendum that sought to legalize casino gambling on Miami Beach. It was roundly defeated in every county in the state, including Miami Beach's own Dade County.
This time around, a pitched battle is brewing, led by many of Florida's most prominent leaders. Polls show voters slightly favoring the casino proposal. Although the governor, state attorney general, and some of the state's largest businesses oppose it, the anticasino forces expect to be outspent in the campaign by nearly 2 to 1.
At stake is a landmark area that finds itself at a turning point. Although the Orlando area in central Florida has more big hotels by far than any other county in the state, the only interest in casinos so far is here in the Miami area, chiefly Miami Beach.
Palms and 100 yards of empty white beach stretch before the sleek mauve, peach, and green art-deco fa,cade facade of the Carlyle Hotel.
``Miami Vice'' has filmed several episodes here. Several big department stores have photographed their summer lines here. Stylish young people lounge in the lobby.
But neighboring porches are still filled with folding chairs for the elderly, who are dominant in the local population.
Affluent professionals who commute across the causeways to work on the mainland are beginning to colonize Miami Beach. The ``Miami Vice'' series has glamorized it, arousing some new tourist interest.
But these are just tender beginnings after years of decline.
``Gambling is one amenity that can draw people back,'' says Jacob Der Hagopian, vice-president with the Royale Group, which is renovating the Carlyle and five other beachfront hotels. ``We have to look to create a new industry. Casinos are a new industry,'' says Mr. Hagopian, adding that each casino in Atlantic City, N.J., has created 3,000 jobs.
Much of the Miami business community sees the issue differently. Miami has evolved in the past decade from a resort into an international finance and trade center, as well as the health-care center for much of Central and South America.
``We're working real hard to be seen as a cosmopolitan, international, diverse center for a variety of businesses, says Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce vice-president Seth Gordon, who moved to Miami Beach himself last year. ``Casinos clash violently with that.''
Mr. Gordon and other chamber officials went to Atlantic City recently to see the effect of casinos there. Their conclusion, he says, was that ``other forms of economic investment are incompatible with casinos.''
In the eight years casinos have been legal in Atlantic City, tourism there has grown to major proportions, but no other major investments have come to the area.
``Major businesses don't want to be near casinos,'' he says, which Americans see as ``morally questionable'' enterprises with a ``tawdry and garish'' style.
Casinos ``would detract from the business climate,'' agrees Tony Villamil, chief economist at Southeast Bank and a member of Florida's advisory board on international tourism. Now that Miami is a major metropolis, the masses of casual tourists of previous decades won't come back, he says, adding that the future of Miami Beach lies in becoming a stylish bedroom community for downtown Miami.
A key selling point of pro-casino forces is the ``painless'' tax revenue that casinos could provide. The state will soon lose nearly $5 million annually in federal funds, says Jacquie Basha, spokeswoman for Citizens for County Choice on Casinos, the major pro-casino group. She suggests casino taxes could help fill the gap.
Opponents counter that casinos have hidden costs as well, such as the tripling of Atlantic City's crime rate in the five years after casinos first opened there, according to Ken Detzner, director of No Casinos, the major anticasino group.
Indirectly, Miami and other Florida ports are already casino gambling centers. Cruise ships become floating casinos as soon as they sail outside the coastal three-mile limit. They also deposit tourists in the thriving gambling halls of the Bahamas near Nassau and Freeport. The mainland could win some of that gambling business, says Mr. Hagopian. ``There's no reason to lose those tax dollars.''