UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Beneath the shimmering 34-story hotel tower, past Michael Jordan’s steakhouse, the Tiffany jeweler, and the beckoning slot machines that churn dollars by the millions, the chief executive of Mohegan Sun is at work in what ought to be a closet.
The drab space may be the worst executive office in the gambling industry.
“There’s no reason to waste a lot of money or good space on offices,” says Mitchell Etess, CEO of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority. “Offices are for working. I try to make it homey.” He has personalized the room with family photos, a Slinky, and an “easy button” from Staples.
From this office, Etess is overseeing Mohegan’s Revere casino bid, an eleventh-hour entrant into the competitive Boston-area casino license sweepstakes. He faces a year-end deadline to complete a colossal task: submit plans to replicate in Revere the experience of visiting Mohegan Sun, a place that cannot be replicated.
“Nobody anywhere in America will ever build anything like this ever again,” said Etess, referring to the roughly $2 billion gambling, dining, and shopping palace the Mohegan tribe opened in 1996, and subsequently expanded. The opening was just 17 years ago, but it was an altogether different time for the industry, when the Mohegans and the Mashantucket Pequots, 10 miles to the east at Foxwoods Resort Casino, enjoyed a vast regional monopoly on Las Vegas-style gambling. Creeping competition has since chopped up the market, reducing possible returns and ending the era of the stand-alone megaresort.
‘Nobody anywhere in America will ever build anything like this ever again.’Mitchell Etess, Mohegan Sun CEO
“What we’ve been focusing on,” said Etess, “is how do we replicate on a lesser scale the concept here at other places?”
The concept of the original Mohegan Sun, at least physically, begins with the distinctive asymmetrical architecture on the outside, and the tribal chic aesthetics on the inside. Symbols of nature and the Mohegan tribe are everywhere. Turtle designs in the carpets. Wolves animated by robotics. Birds and bears rendered in simple silhouette outlines, like a detective would draw around victims of foul play.
The construction materials include lots of rough wood and stone; even the scattered hallway furniture is fashioned from shaved timber.
It is as if someone borrowed the blueprints for an enormous Las Vegas theme hotel and built it almost entirely from things they could find in the woods.
Of course, the tribe has also included some over-the-top attractions, like the five-story indoor waterfall that provides a roaring white-noise soundtrack to a $1 million Dale Chihuly glass sculpture. The 25-foot tower of tangled hand-blown tubes looks like the most fragile object ever assembled, and the reason mom said to never play ball indoors.
The casino’s holiday gingerbread house is made of real gingerbread, and is as big as a real house. Or at least a beach cottage. Cavernous rooms hold nearly 6,000 slot machines and 350 table games. The games are always open. The casino never closes. The doors have no locks.
Mohegan Sun claims to gross more gambling revenue than any other facility in the Western Hemisphere, which means visitors lose more here than anywhere else.
The design themes of a Revere development are more likely to draw on local attractions, such as Revere Beach. “The beach and the history of the beach is super important, so I wouldn’t be shocked if you see themes of that throughout the facility,” said Etess.
The tribe’s hastily planned Revere bid is not the first time it has branched out in commercial casino development. In 2005, Mohegan Sun bought a horse track in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and expanded it into a casino, Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs. It is a successful scaled-down version of the flagship property, with about 2,300 slot machines and 80 table games. Mohegan also manages Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City. The tribe is a partner in a pending bid for a casino license in Philadelphia, and has a deal to develop a gambling resort with the Cowlitz Indian tribe in Washington, a proposal that has been tied up in court challenges.
Etess, 55, has worked at Mohegan Sun since a year before it opened. The upstate New York native grew up in the hotel business — his family owned Grossinger’s, a well-known resort hotel in the Catskills. Top boxers liked to train there, including Rocky Marciano and Ken Norton.
“My first job — I was in charge of the kiddie pool and the animal farm,” Etess said. “I was 13. I had to make sure the animals were fed. I actually did lose two rabbits.” He later worked at the hotel golf course, the front desk, and then “anywhere that needed to be worked,” he said. “They would say, ‘Oops, sorry, so-and-so from transportation quit. You have to run the transportation department.’ And every summer I worked as night manager. I had a real solid foundation in the hospitality business.”
The Revere casino bid is the tribe’s second try for a Massachusetts license, following its Nov. 5 referendum loss in Palmer. That same day, across the state, a Suffolk Downs casino proposal scored a split decision: winning a vote in Revere but losing in East Boston. After the loss, Suffolk Downs officials reached out to Mohegan Sun, Etess said, with a plan to develop a casino solely on the Revere side of the city line that passes through the track’s 163-acre property.
“Putting a deal like that together in a compressed time frame was very challenging and difficult,” Etess said. Much of the negotiations were done on conference call, sometimes with a dozen or more people on the line, including a bunch of lawyers. “It’s something you could have taken six months to do. It was done in six days.”
The two sides announced Nov. 27 that Mohegan Sun would seek to build and own a casino on land leased from Suffolk Downs.
The announcement raised complaints in Palmer, where casino supporters have accused Mohegan Sun of running a lackluster campaign, suggesting the tribe was already coveting the more lucrative license in Greater Boston.
Etess denies Mohegan Sun had wandering eyes before the vote.
“This talk from people in Palmer that we weren’t really trying or didn’t really care is particularly hurtful because we had invested so much into it,” he said. “We were shocked at the outcome.”
The state gambling commission is treating Mohegan’s Revere development as a new project, not as a revision of the old Suffolk Downs plan. The commission on Thursday waived one of its deadlines to permit a new referendum vote in Revere, expected in February. Proponents are confident they will win. They were also confident before the first proposal got clobbered in East Boston.
To move to a vote, Mohegan Sun must sign an agreement with Revere officials. Talks have been ongoing, but no deal has been announced.
Mohegan Sun must submit plans and supporting documents for its application by Dec. 31, the same deadline faced by rival applicant Wynn Resorts, which seeks to open a resort casino in Everett.
“It’s basically a full-court press to get everything done that we had a year to do in Palmer,” said Etess.
The tribe’s designers are drawing plans for a $1 billion gambling resort on about 40 acres of land belonging to Suffolk Downs. Details are in flux, but the early thinking calls for about 4,000 slot machines, 100 table games, and a 20-table poker room, Etess said.
He envisions a retail and entertainment “spine” running through the property, a center bar in the gambling area and a Mohegan Sun hotel of about 300 rooms — a quarter as big as the 1,200-room hotel at the flagship property in Connecticut. The Revere project would probably include a second hotel of 150 to 200 rooms, to be built by another hotelier who has not yet been named, he said.
There will be several major differences from the old Suffolk Downs casino plan. The original project, planned for the East Boston side of the city line, would have required racing to continue at the last thoroughbred track in New England. The new plan has no such guarantee, though track owners say they intend to keep racing. New plans will also move the casino’s planned main entrance north on Route 1A into Revere, Etess said.
No new development can match the original Mohegan Sun, but Etess promised the tribe would build, in Revere, something worth traveling to see. “We want to be another big draw for the Boston area,” he said. “Like Old Ironsides, Faneuil Hall — Mohegan Sun.”