Bridgeport Officials Renew Calls for Casino
Bridgeport officials say their economically strapped city could use the stimulus of a casino whose plans have been retrieved years after it was first designed.
The delegation that represents the state’s largest city in the legislature has reintroduced a bipartisan bill from last year that would open the state to commercial bids for a third casino. The city isn’t mentioned, but it would obviously be one of the players since the main impetus for opening the state to commercial bids comes from MGM Resorts International.
More than a year ago MGM proposed a $675 million casino on the waterfront as part of its ongoing rivalry with the state’s two casino tribes. The casino would include a casino, 300-room hotel and would have access to Interstate 95 and Long Island via ferry.
Rep. Ezequiel Santiago, a sponsor of the bill, said the city is strategically placed to tap the New York state market. “That market is not saturated,” said the representative. “It’s open to the New York City and Long Island markets.”
The reintroduced bill would, “create a competitive bidding process for a resort-casino that would allow the state to choose a development with the most economic impact to the state.” It would also create a new entity called the Connecticut Gaming Commission. A nearly identical bill passed the House last year but died in the Senate, but Santiago says he thinks chances are better this year. In part because several senators who opposed it last year lost reelection bids.
Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim supports the bill and hopes it might get traction if the newly installed governor Ned Lamont looks at the situation with fresh eyes.
“I think it creates an opportunity for an open and transparent process,” Ganim said. “The new governor’s been supportive on this and our delegation at large has been supportive on this.” He adds, “I think it could be a real benefit. I think all of the studies show it would be a huge success.”
Many residents in the area agree that it would bring jobs and entertainment to the area.
A casino in the state’s largest city is not a new idea. There are plans more than 20 years old that have never been acted upon.
Supporters also see it as a positive that a Bridgeport casino would shatter the existing tribal state gaming compacts that give the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and Mohegans a monopoly on Las Vegas style gaming in return for the tribes paying 25 percent to the state—which they have done for a quarter century.
MGM argues that it will pay the state more than the $250 million the tribes paid last year—so the state will make out much better even if the compacts are no longer in force.
Councilman Ernie Newton, whose district includes the part of the city where the casino would be built, feels chances have improved for the city since the tribes decided they wanted to build an off reservation casino in East Windsor.
He points to the MGM National Harbor casino in Maryland as an example of a casino improving the surrounding economy of a city.
A patron of the Inside Winners off-track betting business in Bridgeport, commented “I think it’s going to work. Every time it gets closer and closer. I think Bridgeport needs it.”
But another customer warns that Atlantic City stands as a stark example to avoid. “You know why I wouldn’t want to see one here? What happened to Atlantic City.”
One reason the Bridgeport delegation feels empowered to bring up the issue is that the opposition of MGM to a commercial casino built by the tribes 14 miles from the MGM Springfield in neighboring Massachusetts has stalemated the tribes by preventing them from getting the federal nod that they need to amend their existing gaming compacts with the state, something that state law requires before they can operate.
However, another bill that has been filed would expunge that requirement, and let the tribes move forward.
There is also a report that a compromise is being worked out in the state capital to allow the tribes to build in East Windsor while allowing a competitive bid in another city, most likely Bridgeport.
Meanwhile tribal leaders testifying before the Public Safety and Security Committee repeated their accusation that the Department of the Interior was subjected to undue influence to not give the tribes the approval they needed to begin work on the proposed $300 million Tribal Winds Casino. This move came two days after Interior officials had assured the tribes that the approval was imminent.
They claim Nevada lawmakers leaned hard on former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke so that he reversed the pending approval. MGM is based in Nevada. Mohegan Tribal Council Chairman Kevin Brown declared, “We know through reporting that our compact amendments were in fact marked for approval before some last-minute lobbying by MGM.” He said he and Pequot Chairman Rodney Butler sat with department officials and asked them if they needed anything else.
“No, we’re ready to go,” Brown claims they said. He then notes that when the denial came, it was on a written correspondence that was CC’d to Nevada’s two U.S. Senators but not the to Connecticut delegation. “It was a coalescing of political interests and casino industry business interests to ensure that the state of Connecticut couldn’t compete on an equal footing for this market base.”
Zinke has been forced out under an ethical cloud and President Trump has nominated his successor, David Bernhardt, who is the acting secretary and before that was deputy secretary of the department. He has before that held several other positions within the department, including Solicitor, where he led the International Boundary Commission with Canada that maintains the international border between Canada and the U.S.
Brown and Butler say that are confident that once Bernhardt is confirmed that he will move forward on the approvals. But in the meantime, lawmakers removing the provision would be just as good.
Meanwhile the $965 million MGM Springfield has not been performing up to expectations, and not harming the tribes’ bottom line as much as had been feared. Because those expectations were inflated, the tribes question why MGM’s profit claims for a Bridgeport casino would be any more accurate. MGM’s profits have been 70 percent what it had predicted.
Committee member Senator Catherine Osten, who has introduced the bill, claims MGM hasn’t kept its promises to Springfield, while the tribes have always delivered to the state. Senator Dennis Bradley, who co-chairs the committee with Osten, and represents Bridgeport says he doubts their claims to be able to pay the state $70 million per year from the East Windsor Casino. He asked if they would be willing to put that amount in an escrow account.
Brown advised the senator to look at the $8 billion the tribes have already paid the state during the 25 years they have operated casinos.
“If this bill is about ‘the best deal for Connecticut,’ we are already providing it; if this bill is about development in Bridgeport, we are prepared to discuss it,” both chairmen stated.
Besides the federal approval, the tribes still need zoning approvals and some issues with homes near where they want to build.
The chairmen said they would be surprised if MGM didn’t file a lawsuit challenging them in federal court once they get those approvals. That prediction doesn’t take a seer since MGM has filed several lawsuits along every step of the way to trip up the tribes.
Andrew Doba, spokesman for MMCT Venture, the joint tribal gaming development authority, questioned the reliability of MGM to develop the casino it says it can build in Bridgeport. “Why does anyone take them seriously?” he said.