Connecticut Lawmakers Pass Two Competing Hartford Casino Bill

Mohegan Sun Foxwoods Casino in East Windsor

The Mohegan Sun-Foxwoods Casino in East Windsor would keep Hartford gamblers from playing at the MGM Springfield.

Connecticut lawmakers approved two separate casino bills Wednesday, keeping alive debate about which vision for the Hartford-area casino would win out. The Public Safety Committee approved one plan for a joint venture between Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, but approved a second plan that would open the casino bidding process to other operators.

The Public Safety Committee includes members of the Connecticut Senate and the Connecticut General Assembly, so its recommendations set nothing in stone. What the PSC decisions do is send the bills to the General Assembly, so it can decide which plan is best.

Third Casino in East Hartford

The satellite casino proposal by Foxwoods/Mohegan Sun calls for a casino on I-91 in East Windsor, a suburb of Hartford. That plan calls for a third Connecticut casino which would compete against the $950 million MGM Springfield just 30 miles down the road in Springfield, Massachusetts. With that casino being built in real time, Connecticut needed to move forward quickly on a casino development plan. The East Hartford casino is the only plan which could be executed before MGM Springfield opens.

The other plan was designed with residents of the greater Hartford area in mind. Those residents signed a petition complaining that Hartford’s cities deserved to hear casino development plans from multiple potential gaming companies and developers. To them, rubber-stamping the Foxwoods/Mohegan Sun plan left all the decision making power in the hands of Connecticut’s two tribal casino authorities; they would decide which suburb got a casino. Opening up the bidding to a wider group of bidders likely would increase the money spent in the area, while still fulfilling the purpose of keeping the money of Connecticut gamblers inside the state boundaries.

Craig Miner on the Casino Bills

With two compelling arguments, lawmakers decided to pass both bills, sending them on for the state’s full compliment of lawmakers to decide. State Senator Craig Miner, a Republican from Litchfield, said their decision made the best sense. Sen. Miner explained, “While my personal position hasn’t changed, my position as an elected official is to support both bills.

Sen. Edwin A. Gomes, a Democrat from Bridgeport, said he still supports the East Windsor plan. Like Craig Miner, he believes that the legislature should have their choice of both options.

Meeting with Gov. Malloy

Representatives for Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes have been pushing for a quick resolution to the casino question. In early January, the tribes had a private meeting with Governor Malloy in which they got his support for the third casino. If the East Hartford plan got quick approval in the Senate and General Assembly, the tribes could start building later this year. Now, that time table is in danger — if not the entire plan itself.

Mohegan Sun lost to Wynn Resorts in the licensing process for a Boston-area casino. Mohegan Sun put in a $900 million bid, but Wynn Resorts, a Las Vegas giant, fielded a $1.7 billion development plan. The fear is an extended casino licensing process would lead to a similar result.

Decline of Connecticut Tribal Casinos

It was not always that way for Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Casino. Ten years ago, the Connecticut casinos were among the biggest and most prestigious in the world. That was before New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania built significant casino industries of their own. At the time, gamblers from those states poured into Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.

That market dynamic was changing about the time the Global Recession hit. In response to the first signs of a growing Pennsylvania and New York gaming industry, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods had planned massive billion-dollar expansions, hoping to draw customers to their opulence. The plan backfired, because Americans didn’t have the disposable cash to visit casinos. Those renovations put both tribes over $2 billion in debt apiece.

Because they have to pay down debts and their financiers are less certain of a return on their loans, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods would be less likely to field a multi-billion dollar casino development plan. Potential rivals might be more willing to bid higher, though it is uncertain how much value any would attach to a Hartford casinos with a billion-dollar complex only 30 miles away.