Connecticut Casinos Look to Get In On Massachusetts' Casino Expansion
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That accomplishment pales when one considers other aspects of their economic impact. “When they first emerged, they were a huge source of jobs,” says Alissa DeJonge, vice president of research for the Connecticut Economic Resource Center. “They employed about 20,000 people in the mid- to late ’90s.” (The current number is closer to 10,000.) Both casinos have also made a point of supporting local vendors. “I went to an event at Foxwoods where there was a map that showed all the companies in Connecticut they did business with, down to the one that sells them toilet paper,” says Dargan.
Their support for local nonprofits, says state Sen. Andrew Maynard (D-Griswold), has also been exceptional: “Everything from the Mystic Maritime Aquarium and local schools to the United Way and organizations for the homeless—I can’t begin to list them all,” he says. The Mashantucket Pequots also used their Foxwoods largesse to build the much admired Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center. “And they’ve been enormous donors to the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.,” Maynard says. “Trying to support and advance the history of their people and all Native American tribes is as important to them as anything they do, I think.”
The fact that they’ve been such good corporate citizens has local observers rooting for their expansion into Massachusetts to succeed, even though all agree this will draw revenue away from Connecticut. Tony Sheridan, president of the Eastern Connecticut Chamber of Commerce, has taken part in community discussions in both Palmer and Milford, Mass., to support the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun bids. “I’ve told the people in those towns that they really need to take a hard look at the culture of the bidding organizations,” he says. “The difference between the Wynns and Trumps and Native American tribal nations is night and day. The tribal nations will be way ahead in terms of their sensitivity to community needs, the environment and their employees. The only motivating factor of the non-tribal gaming enterprises is the bottom line.”
Meanwhile, the casinos themselves have been planning for the financial losses Massachusetts gaming may bring here, whether they win the licenses to build or not. One important key, says Mitchell Etess, chief executive officer of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, “is building, for lack of a better term, the ‘destination factor.’”
Toward that end, Mohegan Sun is planning a $50 million expansion in Connecticut: a “Downtown District” that will add 50 retailers, a “Taste of New England” gourmet food hall, a 14-screen movie multiplex and Kings Bowl, a bowling and dining attraction. Foxwoods, which completed its last expansion, MGM Grand, a year before the 2009 financial crisis—resulting in recessionary losses and a $2 billion debt—has successfully resolved this problem and is in the process of adding an 80-store Tanger Factory Outlet Centers mall, a $115 million 300,000-square-foot project that will connect MGM Grand to the Grand Pequot Tower. The resort is also planning a multimillion-dollar renovation of its gaming areas, restaurants and hotel rooms, slated to begin next year.
These projects clearly seem aimed at bringing in new visitors who would not necessarily come to the casinos to gamble, but rather for their ancillary attractions, which also include concerts and sporting events. “The more you build the destination factor, the more certain people can envision coming to the casino and spending a couple of eight or 10-hour days here, as opposed to those who visit casinos that only offer gaming,” Etess says.
The powers-that-be at Mohegan have also been careful to double-down (and even quadruple-down) when protecting their gaming interests: They own or manage casinos in Pocono Downs and Atlantic City, and are pursuing contracts in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. “We knew competition was coming in Massachusetts, so we focused on diversifying geographically,” Etess says. “We set up a separate business unit to collect revenues outside the immediate area.”
In the long run, state Sen. Maynard believes Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods will prevail against all comers—after all, they survived each other, though only eight miles apart. “They were the first in the region and managed to chart their own courses successfully,” he says. “They made Eastern Connecticut a top national and international entertainment destination. I suspect other casinos will not be able to match that kind of record for a number of years.”