Connecticut’s Planned Tribal Winds Casino Project Still Up in the Air

Posted on: January 30, 2019, 04:25h. 

Last updated on: January 30, 2019, 04:34h.

A tribal casino proposed for non-sovereign land in East Windsor, Connecticut finally has a name — Tribal Winds — but the gaming venue may have to wait as it faces continuing legal and regulatory roadblocks.

Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Council Chair Rodney Butler is well aware of the issues that could put the planned Tribal Winds Casino in East Windsor, Connecticut into dead wind.(Image: AGB Nippon)

Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribal leaders have also reaffirmed their commitment to build the $300 million satellite casino (so-called because it must be operated by a company with a larger-scale venue already in place) — but federal, as well as local, obstacles remain.

The main delay comes from the US Department of Interior (DOI) not approving an amendment to the Mashantucket Pequots’ compact with the state, though it’s approved the amended compact with the Mohegans.

To begin construction, either the DOI must approve the amendment or Connecticut’s legislature must eliminate the DOI approval requirement altogether. A bill has been introduced by Connecticut State Sen. Cathy Osten (D-Sprague) to waive the DOI requirement.

But some legislators remain concerned about moving forward without DOI approval, especially since former Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen advised including the sign-off to protect the compact. The new AG — William Tong — has now been asked to review the issue.

Stormy Weather

There is also a risk that MGM Resorts — which opened its Springfield, Massachusetts casino, just 13 miles north of East Windsor, in August of last year, could file litigation once Tribal Winds gets all its approvals.

On Tuesday, Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Council, told legislators “our friends from the north will file something” in a reference to MGM, which wants Connecticut to have a competitive bidding process — one that includes commercial operators — before opening any off-reservation casinos.

Separately, an East Windsor business owner filed a lawsuit in state Superior Court challenging the town’s Planning & Zoning Commission’s approval of the casino. Even though that trial is scheduled to start in June, tribal leaders have said they would move forward with construction regardless.

Tribal Winds is something the community wants,” Butler testified before the Public Safety and Security Committee during an update to lawmakers. “[But] we understand there are skeptics out there.”

Mohegan Tribal Chairman Kevin Brown claims the DOI was set to approve the compact amendment, but then (now former) Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke wavered after alleged “last-minute lobbying” by MGM.

Zinke since resigned, and with an acting Interior Secretary, David Bernhardt, now in place, the amendment still may get okayed, given prior support by lower-level DOI officials.

“For two straight years, we were told repeatedly our compact agreements were going to be approved,” Brown told legislators.

“We’re ready to go when you are,” Brown responded when asked how soon after final approvals are granted the tribes could start construction. He confirmed the foundation cannot be built until temperatures are warmer, but said the project would take between 18 and 24 months to complete.

Lawmakers also questioned the projected $70 million a year from taxes on gambling revenue at the off-reservation site. Brown insisted the tribe “stand(s) by” that estimate.

The East Windsor casino was approved by state officials in 2017. The tribes — working as the MMCT Venture, a business partnership — have already spent about $14 million on the project. The property is cleared and now sits vacant, unoccupied since movie theaters on the site shut down more than a decade ago.

To gain support, the tribes are highlighting the number of jobs that will be created by the new casino — 5,000 direct or indirect employment opportunities during construction and after opening — at a time when Connecticut’s economy remains sluggish.

Casino Deluge

State Sen. Dennis Bradley (D-Bridgeport) cautioned that the gambling market in southern New England is already “saturated,” given the new casinos that have opened in Massachusetts. But Brown responded that another casino would create “incremental demand.”

Both MGM and the tribes also are interested in opening a casino in Bridgeport.

Each of the two tribes operate a casino on Connecticut reservations, and they have a gaming exclusivity agreement as part of their compacts. The state receives about $250 million a year from a 25 percent tax on slot revenue at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos.