A voter-approved amendment was the initial catalyst that forced the Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Track owners to change strategies. With a $10 million project, and possibly more to come, their sights are set on more card shuffling.
Izzy Havenick is reluctant to use the phrase “perfect storm.” But a number of compelling factors did converge to bring about the new Bonita Springs Poker Room.
'The truth of the matter is that with dog racing ending, we needed to reinvent ourselves anyways.’ Izzy Havenick, Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Track
The big one? The Florida constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2018 that prohibits wagering on live dog races and bans dog races in Florida on which there is wagering. Havenick’s family has owned the Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Track in Bonita Springs for four decades, and the amendment’s ban that goes into effect Jan. 1, 2021, meant that things had to change. Several other tracks in the region face similar reckonings, including the Sarasota Kennel Club and Derby Lane in St. Petersburg.
Havenick says his family never thought about selling the 100-acre property. But to continue the gaming and wagering functions that brought people to the site, they would either have to extensively renovate the existing 225,000-square-foot, 1970s-era building or start fresh. They chose to start fresh, from a new building to a new name and brand.
“It just made common sense to build a newer, more modern building,” says Havenick, the vice president of Southwest Florida Enterprises, the parent company of the Bonita Springs Poker Room. “Plus the city of Bonita Springs had been asking us to update our property and build something new, so it worked out perfectly.”
Occupying 10 acres of the property, the 32,000-square-foot Bonita Springs Poker Room features a 37-table live poker room, a sports and wagering center with horse and jai-alai wagering and the Brass Tap restaurant serving craft beer and bar eats. The Miami-based Havenick family (they also own Magic City Casino in Miami) tapped Southwest Florida companies when building the new entertainment venue, working with Naples-based WDG Architecture and PBS Contractors on the $10 million project that got started in 2019.
WDG Architecture factored in everything from site conditions to new zoning criteria being considered by the city of Bonita Springs when coming up with the sleek, modern design for the Bonita Springs Poker Room. The structure was pushed right to the edge of Bonita Beach Road, giving it a prominent position on the property and putting functions like parking to the rear.
“We wanted to do things differently than the suburban sprawl that we constantly see everywhere, with a huge expanse of parking and then a building that’s set way back into the property,” says Tom Jones, principal/director of design at WDG Architecture. “When you push it right to the front of the property line, the building wants to be designed to respond that, and it immediately engages the street and the public.”
One challenging factor? The gaming functions of the site aren’t aligned with engaging the public from the outside. The need for a secure environment where money is being exchanged means you can’t have a lot of windows looking into this space.
“So that was pushed to the rear of the building or incorporated in less conspicuous ways,” Jones says. “We took the most public function of the site — the restaurant — and made that an anchor to the building with lots of glass and lots of visible communication from outside to inside and vice versa.”
The new venue now markedly ties the property to the city in which it is located. “The truth of the matter is that with dog racing ending, we needed to reinvent ourselves anyways,” Havenick says. “So it’s a rebranding of the business, and it made sense to start over with a new name and new building.”
The project employed more than 300 local workers during the construction phase and is expected to create more than 150 full- and part-time positions now that it’s open. Because construction got going in 2019, it wasn’t majorly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. But now, of course, the Bonita Springs Poker Room is navigating the new landscape the way so many other businesses are.
Also, the Havenicks remain undecided about what to do with the remaining 90 acres of the site. The old building on the property will get demolished, but beyond that they’re still in discussion with different people around the city.
“We don’t want to just build something to build something,” Havenick says. “We want to build something that would not just do well for us but also enhance the entire community. So we’re taking our time to figure out what the plan for the site going forward is.”