Mohegan Sun

Connecticut’s Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes have raised concerns that a proposed Bridgeport-New Haven resort would violate an exclusive casino rights agreement the tribes have with the state.

On Sept. 18, MGM Resorts International announced its plan to build a new casino resort in Bridgeport, and a job training center in New Haven. However, the project must be approved by the General Assembly and has faced opposition from the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes because of an approximately 25-year long deal that grants the tribes exclusive casino development rights in Connecticut.

On March 15, the General Assembly’s Public Safety and Security Committee held a public hearing regarding a bill that would issue a request for proposal for a Bridgeport casino — a process that allows different companies, including MGM Resorts International, to bid for casino construction rights. After a lengthy hearing and arguments from both sides, the committee passed the bill, which will go to the full General Assembly for a vote this legislative session.

“[A resort in] Bridgeport particularly would maximize the benefits to Connecticut in terms of jobs, economic development and revenue to the state,” MGM spokesman Bernard Kavaler told the News.

But the tribes already have concrete plans and property in East Windsor to create a casino through their gaming authority MMCT Venture LLC. The plans are stalling because the U.S. Department of Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs has yet to approve the project. The tribes argue that the Bridgeport casino request would cause a breach of contract and ruin their East Windsor casino plans entirely, causing significant revenue decreases for the state and the region.

At the public hearing, East Windsor First Selectman Robert Maynard estimated that the East Windsor casino could get up and running in about two years if the legislature does not repeal the tribes’ casino rights, according to the New Haven Independent.

“I’d like to see a casino in Bridgeport,” Maynard said. “But in addition to this bill supporting Bridgeport, it takes away a casino from East Windsor, from North Central Connecticut. Why can’t we have both? Why do we have to penalize either one?”

Kavaler said the revenues the tribes provide to the state from their exclusive casino rights have been declining over the last 25 years. The revenues for the state are projected at $175 million next year, according to Kavaler. He said that because the Bridgeport casino location would draw from a potentially large market in New York, it could generally provide an excess of $200 million revenues for the state.

The Associated Press reported that the tribes paid the state nearly $271 million last fiscal year.

Although MGM seems to have the most detailed bid plan for the Bridgeport casino at the moment, other companies will be given the opportunity to bid for the casino in the competitive request process. Kavaler said MGM has been “supportive of a competitive process from the outset.”

New Haven mayoral spokesman Laurence Grotheer said the request process will provide an opportunity for all those interested to bid for the casino.

Grotheer said the construction of the resort would provide a “direct” benefit to New Haven through the job training center. Kavaler noted that both Bridgeport and New Haven are among the cities with the highest unemployment rates in Connecticut.

“The job training facility would be a direct benefit to city residents and those from the surrounding towns for employment at the resort which is just a short train ride away,” Grotheer said. “The skills to be acquired at the job training center are certainly transferable and marketable for those who acquire them.”

Kavaler said the resort would bring 2,000 direct hires, as well as 7,000 additional jobs to the region because of general economic growth — a number he said was determined by an Oxford Economics study implemented about a year ago.

Beginning in May, there will be a new commuter rail between Hartford and New Haven. The Hartford Line will make 17 daily round trips, rather than the six Amtrak currently offers. Getting from New Haven to Hartford will take only about 45 minutes.

Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, declared strong support for the project.

“If Connecticut is going to expand casino gaming, we need to make sure we get the best deal and only an open competition can guarantee that,” Stafstrom told the News. “The prospect of thousands of jobs for our community and tens of millions of dollars in new tax revenue cannot be ignored. I am proud to stand united with my delegation colleagues in support of the prospect of more development and growth for our city and the entire Bridgeport region.”

When the casino bill reaches the General Assembly, there will be significant discussions on which is more important: the revenue from the tribes’ current and future casinos — and their exclusive rights deal — or the economic growth a Bridgeport casino could create.

The Connecticut General Assembly regular session for 2018 begins May 9.

Ashna Gupta | ashna.gupta@yale.edu