Plans to build a casino in Bridgeport, which consistently have come up snake eyes over the past few years, may finally move decisively forward this year, according to state lawmakers and the city’s mayor.
“It sometimes takes a couple of years for (legislators) to get used to an idea or concept before it can cross the finish line,” said state Rep. Steve Stafstrom, a Democrat representing Bridgeport.Stafstrom expressed optimism that the General Assembly will pass a bill aimed at clearing the way for adding gambling institutions to the pair of officially sanctioned ones in Mashantucket (the Foxwoods Resort and Casino) and Uncasville (Mohegan Sun). That bill, HB 7055, would “create a competitive bidding process for a resort-casino that would allow the state to choose a development with the most economic impact to the state,” as well as establish an official gaming commission that would gather together reviews of those bids by the state Department of Consumer Protection and the Department of Economic & Community Development, as well as public comments.
Stafstrom, one of 15 members of the House and Senate to introduce the legislation on Jan. 31, introduced a similar bill to establish a bidding process last year, which won House approval but never came to a vote in the Senate.
“We’ll have more time to analyze bills this year,” he said, noting that last year’s legislative session ran from Feb. 7 to May 9 while this year’s runs from Jan. 9 through June 5.
Stafstrom further noted that Gov. Ned Lamont “has made comments to the effect that he is open to the process (of establishing additional casinos in the state), which is also encouraging to us.”
The “us” includes state Rep. Ezequiel Santiago, another Democrat who represents Bridgeport and is co-sponsoring HB 7055. Santiago also noted the longer session and the fact that Democrats now have significant majorities in both houses of the Assembly.
Santiago made the case that Connecticut is running the risk of losing considerable revenue to other states if it does not act now to increase its gambling activity. In addition to the MGM Springfield resort/casino, which opened in Massachusetts last August, there are a number of casinos operating in New York state, including Empire City Casino in Yonkers.
“The market we’re in is so close to Long Island,” Santiago said. “We’re a ferry ride away and that market has not been considered.
“Bridgeport’s location, its access to various transportation modes — I-95, the ferry, the train, the bus terminal — make it an ideal location.”
MGM has been itching for several years to build a $675 million casino in the city’s Steelpointe Harbor. Those plans call for: a 100,000-square-foot casino with 2,000 slot machines and 160 table games; a 300-room hotel; 30,000 square feet of retail space; a 20,000-square-foot entertainment venue with a 700-seat theater; and 60,800 square feet of dining space that would include five restaurants and six bar and lounge locations.
The company pressed its point at a forum held Feb. 9 at the city’s Housatonic Community College. Those discussions, attended by various local stakeholders, served mainly to paint MGM as an attractive partner for the city and looked at traffic and safety concerns as well as potential revenue.
Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, a longtime proponent of the casino, said MGM’s numbers spoke for themselves. The company has said its Steelpointe Harbor casino would create at least 2,000 permanent jobs and an annual tax revenue stream of $316 million for the state, as well as nearly 5,800 jobs in construction and local business.
Ganim further noted that the Feb. 9 confab included a discussion with New Haven Mayor Toni Harp about opening a workforce development center in that city to staff the operation — an idea that was first broached in 2017 when MGM made its initial Bridgeport pitch.
“It would be sort of a ‘BridgeHaven’ approach,” Ganim said, “to take advantage of the job opportunities being created in both of Connecticut’s largest cities.” The cities worked together last year on a joint proposal to attract Amazon’s new headquarters.
The mayor said, however, that he was taking HB 7055’s wording to heart, in that it is seeking an open bidding process for any company looking to open a casino in the state, not just MGM.
Ganim further said the Steelpointe Harbor proposal should be viewed as an “entertainment complex,” not just a casino — and one that would fit in well with the area’s 10,000-seat Webster Bank Arena, the under-construction, 5,500-seat Harbor Yard Amphitheater, and the Poli Palace and Majestic theaters, both undergoing renovations.
Also part of the equation are the tribes that operate Foxwoods (the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation) and Mohegan Sun (the Mohegan Tribe).
The tribes operate the casinos under exclusive revenue-sharing agreements that require them to pay 25 percent of their slot machine revenues to the state. That amount came to about $263.7 million last year, a 2.6 percent decrease from 2017’s $270.7 million.
While Stafstrom and Santiago both underscored that the tribes — which in 2015 formed a partnership, MMCT Venture, to allow them to work together to build a third, jointly owned casino in Connecticut — would be welcome to join the open bidding process, MMCT spokesman Andrew Doba flatly said they would not.
“The tribes have worked with the government of Connecticut for the past 25 years in an arrangement that’s been beneficial to everybody,” Doba said. “They have no interest in participating in an open bidding process after they’ve generated $80 billion for the state.”
Doba noted that federal law maintains that allowing another casino operator in Connecticut would break the tribes’ compact with the state. “There is no commercial casino in the country that’s open right now that can make up what the tribes currently pay to Connecticut,” he said.
Last year, the tribes presented a report maintaining that, if another casino was approved, their payments could be put into escrow until litigation was resolved.
“Should the state lose that litigation it could result in an up-front permanent loss of more than $1 billion in revenue over a four-year period ($270.7 million times 4) while potential casino sites are identified, bids and proposals are submitted to the state, the state reviews proposals and issues a license and a casino is eventually constructed,” according to the report.
MMCT is working to establish its own $300 million gambling site in East Windsor, Tribal Winds Casino, which would compete with MGM Springfield. The tribes received state approval for that project in 2017, but it has been stalled by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s inaction on revising the compact to allow that casino. Doba noted that a bipartisan, bicameral bill, SB 11, is now under consideration. It would remove the requirement of the DOI’s approval from the East Windsor operation.
Santiago maintained that the compact “has basically tied our hands,” but that a successful bidder “would help us find a way to get from Point A to Point B. If we lose the funding from the tribes, we need to find a way to make that up.”