AP NEWS

Changing landscape gives MGM new hope for 2019

December 14, 2018

For a company accused of not caring about Connecticut, MGM Resorts International sure hangs around a lot, especially in Bridgeport. And the Las Vegas company could show up at the state Capitol with more friends in 2019, signaled by a new poll, a new governor and a new coalition of backers.

Yes, gambling fans, it’s late December and that means MGM and the Native American tribes of Southeastern Connecticut are once again lacing up their boots for a legislative battle, for the fourth year, over the right to build the state’s first commercial casino. Place your bets now.

Momentum might be shifting. MGM fell short in its hopes to come away with a bill allowing the state to seek bids from any and all comers hoping to develop a full-scale gaming resort. For 2019, MGM sees a list of reasons for victory, what it hopes will be a big step toward building its proposed, $675 million casino on Bridgeport Harbor.

* The state House in May narrowly passed the bill in a dramatic, late-night vote. The Senate never took it up. We start from scratch this year but with dozens of new Senate and House members, MGM could pick up votes.

* MGM and its Bridgeport partner, RCI Group, the master developer of Steel Point and Seaview, have amassed a loose group of influencers in an effort to broaden the base from just MGM and its supporters, to anyone looking for an open-bidding process.

* The company commissioned a poll that shows a very strong majority of Connecticut voters prefer an open, competitive bidding process for a commercial casino rather than an exclusive license for the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, which own and operate Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun.

* Ned Lamont, the governor elect, appears more likely to favor an open-bidding bill than the outgoing Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, although that’s not clear. Lamont hinted at that position during the campaign. But he has met more than once with the chairmen of the tribes, according to Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, the tribes’ strongest backer in the General Assembly.

* Lamont faces powerful pressure to usher in sports betting as other states do so following last spring’s U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing states into the game. This gives MGM another plaform for its argument that Connecticut needs to broaden commercial betting.

* Progress at the tribes’ planned East Windsor casino remains stalled and in legal limbo as the U.S. Department of the Interior has refused to approve a change in the tribes’ agreement with the state. To break that logjam, Osten and 14 other eastern Connecticut lawmakers have rolled out a bill under which the federal nod wouldn’t be needed. That bill, with more newly elected co-sponsors coming, has sticky legal problems — Attorney General George Jepsen called it a bad idea that could leave Connecticut in the lurch — and MGM will rightly call East Windsor a quagmire.

Looking at the big picture, MGM senior vice president Uri Clinton said, “This is not just MGM speaking into the wind. The narrative truly has changed.”

The coalition, which will grow further, includes former state Senate Republican Leader John McKinney of Fairfield; Mickey Herbert, a longtime local civic leader and business executive who recently ended a stint as CEO of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council; and Richard Velky, chief of the Kent-based Schaghticoke Tribe, which has been trying to regain federal recognition since it had the status granted briefly, then taken away in 2005.

The idea, Clinton said, is to turn the effort into a group fighting for a commercial casino based on open bids, presumably in southeastern Connecticut — not just supporters of MGM’s plan.

“We discovered that there are a lot of people who are like-minded,” said Clinton, long the point man in Connecticut for MGM.

MGM has had powerful allies since before it presented its plan at the Seaview development site in September, 2017, on the harbor and directly across the Yellow Mill River from Steel Point, where RCI is building a massive, multi-use development including as many as 2,000 apartments.

New Haven Mayor Toni Harp and Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim have been part of the effort, and Herbert was on hand from the start. Whether a new infusion of high-profile supporters swings the balance in the General Assembly and wins over Lamont remains to be seen.

”When I talk to my old colleagues in the legislature I’m dumbfounded why anyone would oppose this,” McKinney said in the RCI conference room Thursday. High above the train station, we can see the harbor easing out to the Sound; I-95 and Seaview with its dormant shipyard; the Bass Pro shopping plaza; and Steel Point, where a new building — a restaurant echoing a lighthouse — was recently finished.

From that bird’s-eye view, we can also see the streets of Bridgeport’s east end, where economic need is clear in Connecticut’s largest city. Steel Point stood vacant for decades as one problem after another thwarted a series of developers. The latest, Miami Beach-based RCI — Robert Cristoph Sr. and Jr., the younger now a Connecticut resident — came along at the turn of the millennium and has now made real progress.

But while a casino without state subsidies, which would employ 2,000 people and kick at least $8 million a year into Bridgeport’s coffers, is a slam dunk in this corner of the state, it’s a threat to Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.

They’re already losing revenue to MGM Springfield, which opened in August — thus the effort to corral customers in East Windsor — and they’re looking at a giant, $2 billion casino near Boston, set to open late in 2019, which Mohegan Sun is trying to acquire. A Bridgeport casino would add yet more competition.

Osten isn’t at all dumbfounded by the opposition, and wonders why Connecticut would throw two large employers under a bus carrying gamblers from New York.

”They’re a business that’s been in the state of Connecticut for more than two decades,” Osten said. “I don’t know why we would throw away a good partner…Maybe we should just get rid of all big businesses.”

Neither side is ready to handicap the likely support in the General Assembly. Both sides have Democrats and Republicans on board and of course, New London and Fairfield counties are lined up against each other.

And there’s plenty of bitterness on both sides. Osten attacks MGM as a company that has twice abandoned Connecticut, a charge MGM calls preposterous. She said she could imagine supporting open bids if MGM weren’t part of the scene, but of course, the tribes could win an open bidding process and in fact, might have an advantage since their annual payments to Connecticut — $175 million at minimum under the deal — could be lost if they were to lose the bidding.

It’s true that MGM is lobbying strongly to prevent federal approval of the East Windsor casino, which would threaten MGM Springfield. Both sides say the other is less financially successful than claimed.

And then there’s Velky and the Schaghticokes, who could mount an independent bid for a casino, Velky said Thursday. That tribe holds bitterness toward the Mohegans and Mashantucket Pequots, who, Velky said, opposed their application for recognition.

“We’re looking for a level playing field here,” Velky said. “They kept the Schaghticoke People from getting federal recognition to begin with…now they’re looking to expand.”

There’s no end to the depth of these rivalries but the bottom line is surrounding states are adding casinos while Connecticut remains flat and loses ground. The choice in 2019 is the same as it has been for years: Either we fight amongst ourselves and someday a winner will emerge, or we sit down and mediate a solution where everyone wins and loses some.

Lamont is in the perfect position to hammer out a deal and show his leadership.

All contents © copyright 2019 The Associated Press.All rights reserved.