Two tribes that have been in conflict for almost half a millennium have joined forces against a Massachusetts-based threat to their separate and sovereign casino empires.
Mohegan Tribal Council Chairman Kevin Brown and Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Council Chairman Rodney Butler have made it their goal to open the doors of their new joint venture — a smaller scale operation to divert “convenience” gamers who might otherwise cross the state’s northern border — before the $800 million MGM Springfield casino goes into business.
The Massachusetts casino already is facing delays that have pushed back its opening until either September 2018 or 30 days after construction on the I-91 viaduct in that city is completed.
“Today is evidence that we’re continuing to move forward despite the challenges that they’re having,” Butler told reporters after the two chairmen put pen to paper at the ceremonial signing event at the State Capitol. “We want to be well in advance of MGM coming on board.”
The ceremony followed an Aug. 24 filing with Secretary of the State Denise Merrill recognizing “MMCT Venture” as a limited liability corporation based in Uncasville with Brown as its manager. Butler’s name does not appear in the filing.
Lawmakers paved the way for the joint venture through legislation this year that authorizes the tribes to form a special business entity to facilitate conversations with potential host municipalities. The tribes would have to come back to the General Assembly to get approval to build the casino after choosing a specific location.
The move was met with a lawsuit last month when MGM Resorts International sued Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and other state officials in federal court claiming that they approved an unconstitutional law. MGM claims the law violates the Equal Protection Clause because “it is a race-based set-aside in favor of the two Preferred Tribes at the expense of all other tribes, races, and entities.”
Court documents show the state requested and received a one-month extension to formulate its response to the lawsuit. The new deadline is Oct. 1.
Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen had raised concerns about the proposed legislation before it became law. “Given the unique nature and history of the state’s gaming relationships with the tribes, there is very little in the way of legal precedent or guidance that allows for a confident analysis of these complex and uncertain legal questions,” Jepsen wrote in a memo to lawmakers.
Thursday, Butler defended the law as a proactive move. “[The legislature] passed the law in anticipation that we could resolve these issues,” he said. “So we’ll continue to work with our legal counsel, the attorney general, and the state as well to figure out these issues. We feel like they’re surmountable.”
He also noted that MGM’s legal tactics haven’t discouraged Connecticut towns that believe their physical and economic landscape could benefit from a casino. He estimated at least half a dozen municipalities have already informally expressed interest in hosting the new venue.
Previous reports show East Windsor, Windsor Locks, and East Hartford are among those interested parties.
The tribal chairmen said they will choose the home for their $200-300 million investment through a request-for-proposals process administered by North Haven-based Pearce Real Estate. The RFP, which will be available early next month, is aimed at municipalities in the Hartford area with close proximity and easy access to the highway, according to Butler.
Brown said the new casino will have around 2,000 slot machines and roughly 100 to 150 gaming tables. But the exact details won’t be determined until they have a confirmed location, which will happen after the RFP process closes at the end of November.
All discussions going forward will be informed by the findings of a report commissioned by the tribes that found the two casinos in southeastern Connecticut will lose about 9,300 jobs by 2019 if gambling facilities in New York and Massachusetts cannibalize $703 million in gaming and non-gaming revenues.
Both chairmen said the importance of protecting jobs and revenue today trumps hundreds of years of tribal rivalry and decades of business competition.
Calling on experience gleaned from a 20-year stint with the U.S. Army before he became chairman of the Mohegan Tribal Council, Brown described the tribes’ unlikely alliance this way: “While I was deployed in the Middle East I became very familiar with an Arab phrase: ‘Me and my brother against my cousin; Me, my brother, and my cousin against the outside.’ That’s what this is really all about.”
Brown said that while the tribes will remain competitors, they must work together to defend themselves against outside interests that “have acknowledged plainly their intent to target our jobs here in Connecticut.”