The steel outline of a $950 million casino is rising in downtown Springfield, a landmark project that could transform the city center and draw gamblers from across the region.
But just a short drive down Interstate 91, a cross-border competition is brewing.
With the MGM Resorts casino slated to open late next year, Connecticut is looking to protect its gambling territory by opening a rival gambling hall on Massachusetts’ doorstep, less than 20 miles from Springfield.
Earlier this month, the plan took a major step forward when the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes chose East Windsor, Conn., a rural town of about 11,000 once known for tobacco farming, to host a proposed casino. It would replace a closed movie theater and generate as much as $8 million in local revenue.
“We’re really pleased to have the casino,” said Robert Maynard, East Windsor’s top elected official. “This is something the state of Connecticut needs for the jobs and revenue it will bring.”
The plan, which requires the approval of the governor and state Legislature, is the latest salvo in New England’s casino arms race, a maneuver meant to protect the state’s dwindling casino revenue against growing competition in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
“This plan for a new casino, in essence, is a plan to protect our jobs and revenue,” said Paul Formica, a Republican state senator.
Connecticut once received almost $450 million a year in revenue from its two colossal casinos — Foxwoods Resort, run by the Mashantucket Pequot, and Mohegan Sun, operated by the Mohegan tribe. But as casinos have proliferated, Connecticut’s market share has dwindled, and the state now collects less than $300 million a year.
The casino in Springfield, just a 30-minute drive from Hartford, would accelerate that downward spiral and could deliver a crushing blow to an industry that ranks as one of the state’s largest employers.
“If we do nothing to compete against MGM in Springfield, Connecticut will lose more than 9,000 jobs and over $100 million in state tax revenue,” said Andrew Doba, a spokesman for the two Connecticut tribes.
In 2015, the tribes received permission from the Legislature to pursue a commercial casino. The plan now faces a March 16 deadline for approval from a legislative committee.
MGM projects that about one-third of its customers will come from Hartford and its affluent suburbs, which are closer to Springfield than they are to Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods.
The current plan would erode that base, and MGM has done its best to fend off the proposal. It has filed a discrimination lawsuit against the state, joined forces with a rival tribe to oppose the plan, and commissioned a study that found a casino in southwestern Connecticut would be more profitable.
MGM’s lawsuit was dismissed in US District Court, but the company is appealing. It also funded a lawsuit by the Schaghticoke Tribe, which hopes to build a casino in southwestern Connecticut. That lawsuit has been withdrawn.
MGM and its lobbyists have regularly testified at legislative hearings in favor of building a third casino along Interstate 95 toward the New York border, a safe distance away from Springfield.
“We will continue to press our case,” said Alan Feldman, an MGM executive vice president. “A casino in the southwestern corner would deliver a greater benefit to the state of Connecticut than East Windsor.”
At the same time, Feldman said MGM does not fear a smaller casino. MGM will have more than 3,000 slot machines, while the casino in East Windsor will have about 2,000.
“We are not opposed to competition,” Feldman said. “We’re opposed to the process the state of Connecticut has followed. Connecticut has turned the process on its head by allowing the tribes that already operate casinos to dictate policy.”
But Maynard, the selectman in East Windsor, dismissed that argument as “sour grapes.”
“I would be sympathetic to MGM’s opposition to the casino if they argued a casino causes gambling addiction and hurts families,” he said. “But MGM isn’t saying that.”
Maynard said he wants a casino in East Windsor for the same reason MGM opposes it: money. The state’s budget woes have forced cutbacks in local aid, and the town’s subsidy has fallen by half to $3 million.
“In fact, I’m glad MGM is building in Springfield,” he said. “Because without it, East Windsor would never have been considered for a casino site, and we need the money.”
Kevin Kennedy, Springfield’s chief development officer, said the city has worked for five years to make a downtown casino a reality and is focused on the task at hand.
“Connecticut is going to do what Connecticut needs to do,” he said. “The only thing we can do is concentrate on making our casino the best it can be.”