ashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes leaders said Tuesday before lawmakers that they will build a casino in East Windsor, and if permitted, another one in Bridgeport, most likely a small one.
“Nobody wants to make this move forward faster than we do,” said Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot tribal council, to members of the General Assembly’s public safety committee. He was referring to the long-delayed East Windsor casino, which is still months away from a groundbreaking but on track, he said. “The market is still growing, surprisingly,” Butler told The Middletown Press, refuting the testimony of a Mohegan executive who said it’s saturated.
Tribal casinos slot machine revenues in the state are down, but only by about 7 percent in the last year, above predictions. Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun paid $255 million to the state in 2019 as part of their agreement for exclusive casino rights, far more than predicted, even as MGM Springfield fell short of its revenue expectations.
“The Mohegans and the Mashantucket Pequots have reinvested hundreds of millions,” Butler said. “We chose not to do nothing, and that’s why we fared so well since those original conversations.”
Rep. Joe Verrengia, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the public safety committee, which oversees gaming, wants the tribes to share sports betting with Sportech, the operators of Connecticut’s 14 Off-Track Betting locations; and with the Connecticut Lottery. Outside commercial casinos would be out, in that proposal.
The heads of Sportech and the CT Lottery are making a strong argument that they should be cut in on sports betting, which the tribes said would violate their deal with the state and jeopardize the payments.
A Bridgeport casino can only happen if the General Assembly and Gov. Ned Lamont give the tribes a license to build one, and if that plan survives a legal dispute from MGM Resorts International. The bill that would give them a license in Bridgeport, sponsored by Sen. Cathy Osten, whose district includes the casinos and reservations, doesn’t require them to build in the state’s largest city — it only suggests it. It requires an investment of only $100 million by the tribes’ joint venture, MMCT.
“This isn’t a game-changer for the city,” Butler told the panel, “it’s a catalyst for other development.” A game-changer is what MGM proposed in September 2017, with a $675 million casino in Bridgeport as the tribes were planning their East Windsor casino. MGM says it still wants to build in Bridgeport.
Sen. Dennis Bradley, co-chairman of public safety, railed at the idea that the General Assembly would do anything other than offer a casino license and sports betting to the tribes, based on revenue projections that protect the state’s take from the 90s-era compact. Bradley asked, “Why aren’t we jumping full steam ahead to make this project a reality?” He asked whether the tribes would be offended if the bill said they must build a casino, putting the onus on them to actually do it.
“There’s no question that the Northeast has gotten saturated,” said Anthony Casdia, senior vice president of business development for Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment, that tribe’s worldwide management company. “When you look at the developments in Massachusetts and some other states, the investors are not getting an adequate return on their capital and they’re forced to make cuts and changes to their operations that they did not anticipate when they entered the fray.”
Casdia added: “Anything we do in Bridgeport would be very heavily analyzed and not overbuilt because we want to make sure that we can deliver on our promises.”
Chuck Bunnell, chief of staff to the Mohegan Tribe, said about the East Windsor and Bridgeport casinos: “I think the odds are exceptionally good that they get built. ... It will depend on the market and the proximity to other facilities and the size of those facilities.” “Both tribes are committed to moving as expeditiously as possible,” Bunnell said.
“We’re talking about allowing for another casino for partners that haven’t come through on the first one,” Verrengia said. Lawyers for the tribes replied that they couldn’t do that. Now, the problem is a local zoning permit that requires the town to rewrite some rules — a process that can take months longer.
MGM, for its part, maintains that the law requires the state to open gaming expansion to outside bidders. In a written statement Wednesday, the company said it will continue to fight in court. “Continuing to artificially restrict, constrain or prevent an open, transparent and competitive process while expanding state-sanctioned gaming is not in the best interest of Connecticut’s taxpayers, communities or economic growth,” the statement said.