deal between the state and Connecticut’s two federally recognized Indian tribes could lead to an extensive renovation of the XL Center and the introduction of casino-style gambling to the Capital city.
The proposal has only been discussed in concept so far, and has surfaced as Gov. Ned Lamont has sought to break a gambling stalemate over casino expansion in the state. He is calling for Connecticut’s two federally recognized Indian tribes to drop long-standing plans for an East Windsor casino in exchange for sports betting and other enticements, officials said, as reported by Hartford Courant.
The state has discussed selling the XL Center — formerly known as the Hartford Civic Center— in downtown Hartford to the tribes, who would renovate and add gambling and other amenities to the arena, according to a source close to the negotiations cited by the same newspaper.
The “global solution” that Lamont is pushing has been rejected so far by the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, who have spent nearly $20 million in planning, design and demolition costs in fighting for years to build the $300 million East Windsor casino. That casino would be located just over the state line from the year-old MGM Springfield casino.
Ryan Drajewicz, Lamont’s Chief of Staff, said Sunday that the governor wants to see a resolution after a long stalemate. "His primary objective is to do what’s best for the state of Connecticut, not the narrow interests that so often dominate this issue at the expense of the citizens of this state,'' Drajewicz said. In return for giving up East Windsor, officials said the tribes would receive permission to run sports betting across the state, operate a casino in Bridgeport, and conduct internet gambling.
However, the proposed East Windsor casino is critical to both MGM and the tribes. The tribes have been unwilling to back off on the East Windsor site. If a casino is built in East Windsor, MGM has long said it would sue to block its opening because the state did not conduct an open process when it selected the tribes to operate the facility.
Elimination of the East Windsor casino would be advantageous to MGM Resorts International, whose $1 billion casino in Springfield has failed to meet expectations for revenues and profits. MGM originally filed a lawsuit to block the East Windsor casino, but the company has agreed not to pursue litigation if the East Windsor plans are dropped.
Talks between the state and the tribes are expected to resume this week. Any proposed solution would require approval from the General Assembly. “I feel very strongly that if we come up with the right deal, they would not sue,” Lamont said, referring to MGM. “There is a solution that would avoid litigation, and that’s my priority.”
During nearly five months of closed-door talks with the tribes, negotiators have discussed a wide variety of ideas that are still at the concept stage, including sale of the aging XL Center, which needs hundreds of millions of dollars in improvements that state legislators have been unwilling to pay for. The XL Center is operated by the Capital Region Development Authority. The authority has failed in efforts to sell the arena and more recently has discussed asking the state for $100 million in improvements. If the tribes were to take over the XL Center, it would be upgraded and continue to host NCAA basketball and minor league hockey. A possible scenario would add sports betting, restaurants and gambling as well.
The latest development in the ongoing casino saga came last week with the release of a 37-page bill by Sen. Cathy Osten, a pro-tribes Democrat who played a key role in writing the legislation. Lawmakers forged a new coalition with the Democratic-dominated Bridgeport delegation and East Windsor lawmakers who are supportive of the proposed local casino.
Osten and other supporters of the tribes said the issue is important to Connecticut’s future because the tribes are the seventh- and eighth-largest employers in the state and account for more than 15,000 jobs overall. In addition, the casinos attract millions of customers every year with more than half of them coming from out of state — bringing their money to spend on gambling, meals and hotels in Connecticut.
The lack of participation by Lamont in the bill was unusual, and it comes as the first-term Democrat is continuing to learn to build relationships with legislators. “I’ll revive any [gambling] idea that lets us get off the dime, and I don’t have to sit around and talk about gambling for the next three years — because in terms of my priorities, I’m not sure it’s in the top 20,” Lamont said.
Drajewicz said Sunday that the governor wants a solution that won’t be tied up for years to come. "He has laid out a strategic vision and framework which permits the state to move forward with a comprehensive expansion of gaming without the delays and uncertainties this draft bill poses,'' Drajewicz said. "One need look no further than the East Windsor project to understand why the governor’s approach is right. That casino was authorized two years ago and remains in legal and financial limbo.''