Customers will soon place their bets at the site of a former flea market in St. Augustine as bestbet announces plans to build a new gambling facility on land wedged between Interstate 95 and Florida 207.
Owners of the planned 40,673-square-foot poker room and simulcast wagering complex at 800 Marketplace Drive secured its building permit just under a week ago from St. Johns County officials.
The move brings bestbet back to the county where it opened St. Johns Greyhound Park in the 1990s at Race Track Road off U.S. 1 to offer dog racing, then pari-mutuel betting on other races. It became “The Best Bet” in 2004 as poker came to a 44-table game room. Then it closed in 2012, six years before Florida voters approved a ban on greyhound racing by constitutional amendment.
“The first card room to open in Northeast Florida was in St Johns County, and the patrons always enjoyed the entertainment option provided,” bestbet President Jamie Shelton told The St. Augustine Record.
The new facility would be smaller than bestbet’s other locations. One is 74,863 square feet at 201 Monument Road in Jacksonville. A 100,146-square-foot facility operates in the former greyhound track at 455 Park Ave. in Orange Park. Those offer poker and other card games, simulcast wagering on horse and greyhound racing and jai alai.
In 2020 an initial proposal by bestbet to open a facility in St. Johns prompted a legal challenge from the Daytona Beach Kennel Club due to its close proximity to St. Johns County. It was not upheld.
“We believe the facility will be a draw for both the immediate region as well as the Southeast,” Shelton told The Record, adding that it would take about a year to build it.
“We are in the design stages now and we are working the make the design a first-class facility,” Shelton said.
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The move follows news that global casino operator Las Vegas Sands Corp. is looking at land around Jacksonville International Airport for a potential casino complex if Florida voters approve a statewide gambling referendum in November 2022, according to City Council member Reggie Gaffney.
The councilman had supported a 2016 Duval County referendum that saw a 54 percent approval for slot machines at bestbet’s poker room in Arlington.
That measure failed when the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the state Legislature would need to change the law to have a county referendum open that door. Then in 2018, Florida voters amended the state constitution by giving voters the sole power to decide on gambling outside Seminole tribal lands, where it is legal.
A citizen petition drive must be done to get an amendment on the ballot, then approval statewide at the polls. The bestbet poker room on Monument Road has a cardroom license.
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The second proposed amendment drafted by Florida Voters in Charge would allow three new casinos that are at least 100 miles from any of the Seminole Tribe’s casinos. The Florida Gaming Control Commission would issue those licenses based on applications it receives and each casino would require at least $500 million in investment.
The former Race Track Road bestbet building was long considered an eyesore due to its dilapidated condition. It was torn down several months ago in preparation for a large-scale, mixed-use development called Grand Cypress, which St. Johns County Commissioners approved in January.
That plan, submitted by the Jacksonville-based Gatlin Development Co., calls for a rezoning of the property to allow for 915 multifamily units and 250,000 square feet of commercial and office use.
Meanwhile, another 23 acres of the former St. Augustine Flea Market site was sold to Baptist Health for $11.9 million so it can build a hospital complex. Work on that project is underway.
Times-Union writer Dan Scanlan contributed to this report.