MGM Bridgeport plan stokes casino expansion debate
Updated 8:40 pm, Monday, September 18, 2017
The mayors of Connecticut’s two largest cities threw their chips onto the table Monday in support of a $675 million MGM casino on Bridgeport’s waterfront and associated employee training center in New Haven, saying private investment opportunities of this magnitude should be a no-brainer for the cash-strapped state that still doesn’t have a budget.
Bridgeport’s Joe Ganim and New Haven’s Toni Harp touted the economic benefits of the project during a groundbreaking ceremony with MGM’s chief executive officer, Bridgeport native Jim Murren. The package of enticements offered by the casino giant — which has committed taking no public money for MGM Bridgeport and creating a minimum of 2,000 jobs — won over the mayors.
Bridgeport would get $8 million a year for hosting the casino, while New Haven would get an unspecified share of $4.5 million a year for surrounding communities impacted by the project. Both sums are separate from a $50 million casino licensing fee and projected $316 million in annual taxes MGM has promised the state.
But convincing the governor and Legislature to green-light the project won’t be as easy. No sooner did the shovel hit what MGM hopes will be pay dirt than foes started lining up against the project, led by the two tribes that have exclusive casino operating rights in the state, the Mohegans and Mashantucket Pequots.
“This is an opportunity for Connecticut in a state that sorely needs it,” said Ganim, who is exploring a run for governor. “I hope we can do this. I hope we can make it happen.”
The operators of Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods dismissed the MGM plan as a pipe dream Monday, and reasserted their exclusivity arrangement with the state, which gave the tribes final approval earlier this year to build a joint-venture satellite casino north of Hartford in East Windsor.
“The idea that MGM is having a ‘groundbreaking’ for a project that hasn’t come close to receiving legislative approval continues a pattern of dishonesty that we saw time and again during the legislative session,” said Andrew Doba, a spokesman for the tribes’ competing project. “Simply put, authorization of this facility would violate the existing compacts between the two tribes and the state, which would immediately end the slot payments that currently send the state hundreds of million a year in much-need revenue. Our state’s elected officials saw through their dishonesty last session, and we expect them to see this latest fib for exactly what it is — another bought and paid-for piece of misinformation.”
Governor to review
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy cast doubts Monday that the tribes would willing to re-negotiate their compact, in which they pay 25 percent of annual slot revenue to the state — about $260 million a year. But the governor was also careful not to take sides in the casino rivalry, which pits his former chief strategist, Roy Occhiogrosso, the lobbyist for MGM, against Malloy’s former spokesman, Doba, who is representing the tribes.
“I think all of this is highly speculative,” Malloy told reporters at the Capitol. “It would violate our agreement with the tribal nations, so the next two years that would have a negative impact of almost $500 million on the state, should that move forward.”
Malloy spokesman Chris Collibee said the governor’s office would review MGM’s proposal, however.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, long opposed to a Fairfield County casino, showed no signs of budging Monday.
“Putting a casino in Bridgeport has never been an idea that I have embraced, one — for Bridgeport’s own economic development and, two — for the additional traffic on I-95,” Duff said.
MGM, represented by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, unsuccessfully sued the state over what it claims is an unfair monopoly. It has vowed further litigation after its most recent challenge was denied by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City
“I don’t want to call it sour grapes or continuing to make hay, but the timing of this is a little suspicious,” Duff said.
Ganim has been down this road before, teaming up with Donald Trump in the early 1990s on a failed waterfront casino project that met stiff resistance from rival casino mogul Steve Wynn and the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, as well as then-Gov. Lowell Weicker Jr.
“My view is the same. Of course, you now have the sole right of gambling in the hands of the Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegans,” Weicker said Monday. “So I don’t quite understand how that’s going to work out. I don’t think legally it can happen.”
Weicker said he had multiple misgivings as governor about building a casino in Bridgeport, a city of 147,000 people, and still does.
“I think mainly because it was Trump,” Weicker said. Plus, he said, “My God, I-95 can’t even handle the present traffic.”
Renderings of MGM Bridgeport show a 10-story minimum, 300-room hotel rising up on the former Carpenter Technology property off Seaview Avenue, bordered by a 900-foot boardwalk, marina and 30,000-square feet of retail space.
The casino would occupy 100,000 square feet of space, with 2,000 slot machines and 160 gaming tables. MGM has signed a contract with the RCI Group, Steelpointe’s developer, to build the resort on a 28-acre site across from Bass Pro Shops.
New Haven endorsement
Harp, who is running for a third term as New Haven mayor, gave the project her blessing.
“We have a vibrant region and opportunity between Bridgeport and New Haven,” Harp said. “We’re thrilled to be a part of this.”
State Rep. Christopher Rosario, D-Bridgeport, who helped introduce an unsuccessful bill to open up casino expansion to competition earlier this year, joined Ganim and Harp for the groundbreaking.
“It was literally the best-kept secret for a while now,” Rosario said of the MGM plan. “Let’s be honest here. All these Fortune 500 companies are leaving this state. I’m tired of Bridgeport coming hat-in-hand.”
Rosario, chairman of the Legislature’s Black & Puerto Rican Caucus, said there is a double-standard when it comes to development in Bridgeport. Mall projects in Norwalk and West Haven, he said, could have just as much impact on Interstate 95 as a Bridgeport casino, but rarely get mentioned.
“Anybody who comes up to me and says, ‘Oh the traffic.’ That’s baloney,” Rosario said.
State Sen. L. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Commerce and Finance, Revenue and Bonding committees, soured on MGM’s overture.
“We witnessed what happened in Atlantic City, which I believe has always been a harbinger for other areas that believe in gambling as a key economic driver,” said Frantz, who called MGM’s commitment to pay for the project entirely with private funds as a “wonderful gesture.”
“As you know I don’t like gambling, period,” Frantz said. “It’s hard to support any expansion of an activity you don’t like in the first place.”
State Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, vowed to fight the MGM project.
“And what about the human costs?” Hwang said. “Casinos spread gambling addiction, debt, bankruptcies, and crime. We cannot ignore the societal costs that gambling has brought to Connecticut: the families that have been torn apart, the lost hopes and the suicides.”
Republican Dave Walker, a gubernatorial candidate from Bridgeport and former U.S. comptroller general, said he is receptive to the MGM plan.
“We need more economic development and job growth, and we need to expand our tax base in Bridgeport,” Walker said. “I think Bridgeport would be a great location for an entertainment center, but it needs to be coupled with efforts to improve rail service and adopt high-speed water ferries to New York.”
Tim Herbst and Mark Lauretti, the first selectman and mayor of border communities Trumbull and Shelton, said the plan has potential, but they want to see the fine print. Both are GOP candidates for governor, too.
“This may not be a bad place, especially since it would be privately funded,” Lauretti said. “The resolution to some of Connecticut’s inner-city problems is certainly employment opportunities for those people, and this does that.”
Herbst said MGM needs to flesh out what kind of infrastructure improvements would be necessary, including a potential runway expansion at Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Stratford. He also balked at the amount Bridgeport would be paid for hosting the casino.
“Eight million clearly isn’t enough,” Herbst said. “I don’t want Bridgeport to become the next Hartford.”
The debate over MGM Bridgeport is poised cast a large shadow on the governor’s race, which Herbst humorously foreshadowing when he made a jibe at his Bridgeport counterpart, Ganim, who has gubernatorial aspirations.
“So maybe Joe should go back to being the mayor full time, so he can focus on projects like this,” Herbst said. “Maybe he should stay — that was said tongue-in-cheek.”
— Staff writer Ken Dixon contributed to this report. http://twitter.com/gettinviggy; firstname.lastname@example.org; 203-625-4436
— Staff writer Ken Dixon contributed to this report.
http://twitter.com/gettinviggy; email@example.com; 203-625-4436