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New Conn. competition for a Springfield casino

Rival tribes team up, look to open a facility near border

Kevin Brown (left) and Rodney Butler, chairmen of the often-rival Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes, have allied.Lauren Schneiderman/Hartford Courant/AP

EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — Two Connecticut Native American tribes that run competing casinos are joining in an unprecedented collaboration to discourage the state's gamblers from taking their business to MGM Resorts' planned $800 million casino in Springfield.

The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, enemies for centuries and business rivals for two decades, have put their names on a corporation that Connecticut has authorized to pick a spot for a casino somewhere between Springfield and Greater Hartford. The site, which would be run by both tribes, is expected to be chosen by the end of the year.

Connecticut's move to protect its territory has sparked a border war of words, and further shaken confidence in MGM's commitment to Springfield, where the Nevada-based corporation recently announced it would delay the opening date and downsize its proposal for a casino and hotel complex.

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As Springfield frets over whether MGM is wavering, Connecticut "is not sitting by idly," said Lee C. Erdmann, acting town manager of Enfield, one of the communities that have been considered for what the state is calling a "satellite casino."

"Connecticut is moving quite aggressively to protect its markets," he said.

The addition of a casino run by Native Americans would need final approval by the Connecticut Legislature, but already, in East Hartford, less than 30 miles from Springfield, Mayor Marcia A. Leclerc said she has the perfect spot for a casino: a shuttered cinema complex just off Interstate 84 and near Rentschler Field, where the University of Connecticut's football team plays.

Unemployment is high in East Hartford, making the promise of casino jobs very attractive, Leclerc said. A casino would also offer property tax relief to homeowners, she said.

"It is important to keep jobs in Connecticut," Leclerc said in an interview. "And keeping tax dollars in our state is important to every municipality."

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The Mashantucket Pequot, operators of Foxwoods Resort Casino, and the Mohegan, operators of Mohegan Sun, have proved to be fierce business competitors since introducing casinos to New England 20 years ago. Along the way, they created thousands of jobs and poured billions of dollars into Connecticut state coffers for the exclusive right to operate casinos in the state.

Whatever their historical enmity, the tribes share an interest in heading off an exodus of gamblers into Massachusetts.

Kevin Brown, chairman of the Mohegan Tribe, has called the MGM casino planned for Springfield an attempt at "siphoning revenues from Connecticut to benefit a Las Vegas company while at the same time moving thousands of existing jobs from Connecticut to Massachusetts."

Greater Hartford, with some 1.2 million residents, is considered a vital market for MGM's planned Springfield casino. In 2013, MGM executives told the Massachusetts Gaming Commission that they needed about one-third of their customers to come from Connecticut, many of them lured from Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, which are located in southeastern Connecticut.

"We are ideally positioned to go into Hartford and attack," said William Hornbuckle, MGM Resorts president. "We know how to do that. And we can go well down into Connecticut."

In July, Hornbuckle told a Bloomberg News reporter that MGM would do battle to preserve its market share in the face of a possible casino south of the border with Connecticut.

"We're not going to go peacefully," Hornbuckle said of MGM.

"Bring it on, MGM," was the reply from Stephen D. Dargan, a Connecticut state representative and chairman of the committee that oversees casinos. "We're in direct competition."

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A month after Hornbuckle's vow to fight, MGM filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the way Connecticut granted the tribes permission to build a casino outside their reservations.

But MGM's pledge to fight has yet to be accompanied by action on the 14-acre site that it owns in Springfield's South End. It has done little on the property, beyond putting up fences, removing asbestos, and demolishing some buildings.

It has been well over a year since the state gambling commission awarded the license for the Western Massachusetts casino to MGM. On a recent day, the area was devoid of activity. Even MGM's storefront "community" office in Springfield was closed, with a sign posted on the door saying it will reopen in a different location "at the start of the new year." Visible through the window was an obsolete model of the original design for the casino and hotel, featuring a signature 25-story tower that MGM says will be replaced by a series of smaller buildings.

"I would have expected MGM to have been more aggressive on the site by now," Enrique Zuniga, a member of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission who in 2014 voted with the other members to award MGM its license, said in an interview.

MGM executives have repeatedly stated that they are in Springfield to stay, as has their chief local proponent, Domenic Sarno, Springfield's mayor. Since coming to town, MGM has paid for fireworks shows and Christmas lights, and funded the local minor league hockey team, among other causes. The company has promised to pay the city of Springfield $25 million a year as compensation for the effects of a casino in the city.

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As for residents in the Connecticut River Valley, they say they will patronize whichever casino is up and running, as long as it is close by.

In Weathersfield, Conn., a community of 26,000 along the Connecticut River, Nancy Chesky, 67, said she will go to the casino the shortest distance from home.

"I'd like to save a little bit on the transportation cost because, after all, I'm likely to leave a little money at the casino anyway," she said.


Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.