EAST WINDSOR, CT — If a vote was taken Tuesday night amongst the 400-plus in attendance at a “community conversation” on a proposed casino in town, it’s pretty clear that blackjack, craps, and slot machines would be in East Windsor’s future.
The crowd that jammed every seat and spilled into the hallways and corridors of the East Windsor Middle School was pro-casino, for sure, as speaker after speaker talked about the economic benefits that a casino would bring a mostly rural north central Connecticut town of about 11,100.
As East Windsor Selectman Steve Dearborn put it: “I travel all over state on business and when I tell people I’m from East Windsor, they usually ask me, “Where’s that?”
“This is going to put us on the map,” Dearborn said. His comments were met by rousing applause from the audience.
Tuesday night was the first of what’s been billed as community conversations on plans to build a third casino in the state. The second hearing will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at Windsor Locks High School.
The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Tribes formed a joint business venture (MMCT Venture LLC) in 2015 to build a casino to compete with the one MGM is building in Springfield, Mass., which is slated to open in 2018.
The tribes are expected to bring their final decision on where to build a third casino in Connecticut to the General Assembly later this year for approval.
The General Assembly and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who has remained largely neutral in discussions about gaming expansion, would then need to give approval of the location.
The tribes are considering Bradley International Airport and the Thrall Tobacco Farm site on Old Country Road as locations for a casino in Windsor Locks, while the site of the old Showcase Cinemas in East Windsor is also in the running.
The Showcase Cinemas site is one of the reasons many in Tuesday’s audience think a casino is such a good idea for East Windsor.
East Windsor Police Chief Edward J. DeMarco Jr. said the prospective casino location, right off Interstate 91, is a location where traffic impact to the town “should be minimal.”
DeMarco also addressed one fear that some have expressed about a casino coming to East Windsor — an increase in crime.
The police chief said that when talks of a casino coming to town first surfaced, he and members of his department did some research, including visiting other towns that house casinos similar in size to what is being proposed.
“With any large development comes change,” DeMarco said. “But I am convinced we could handle it. The ultimate goal is to have public safety as good or better than it currently is — and I believe that would be the case.”
Most in the audience voiced the potential for job creation — at both the casino and in businesses surrounding it, as the reason to support a casino in East Windsor.
A handful of residents Tuesday spoke in opposition to the idea and expressed concern about the impact on the small, mostly residential town. There were others earlier in the day at the state Capitol who formed a coalition to oppose the legalization of off-reservation commercial casino gambling in Connecticut. They expressed concern about crime and gambling problems.
The white paper the group released Tuesday noted that over half of Connecticut’s casino revenue originally came from out-of-staters who brought new money to the state. But those customers have been declining and a convenience casino won’t bring them back.
The new coalition was concerned that while the casino may keep some gamblers from going to the new casino in Springfield, it would expand casino gambling in Connecticut “by making it more readily available to hundreds of thousands of state residents, thereby encouraging more people to gamble and adding to the state’s economic and social problems.”
The Office of Fiscal Analysis concluded in October 2016 that Connecticut could lose $68.3 million in revenue once MGM Resorts International opens its casino in Springfield.
The tribes say that if Connecticut does nothing, the state stands to lose more than 9,000 jobs, according to a study commissioned by the tribes.
One of those who spoke to the crowd Tuesday night was Andrea Goodrich, of Ledyard, who has dealt cards at Foxwoods since 2003.
Goodrich is also the president of the union that represents the dealers at the casino — and her husband works there as well, also as a dealer.
“People will ask me how do you like living in a casino town, expecting that it’s like Atlantic City,” Goodrich told the crowd.
“It’s not — it’s like pulling into Mayberry. The pace of living hasn’t changed much at all in town — except now we all have a place to work.”
And the crowd heard that the casino also tends to create jobs at places aside from the casino.
Gary Paul, also of Ledyard, operates an electronics sale and service company in Groton that he said was hurting — until the casinos came.
“I can’t say enough about what they’ve done for me,” Paul said. “At least two of my 12 employees are there just because of the casino work.”
In attendance at Tuesday’s session were Mohegan Tribal Chairman Kevin Brown and Mashantucket Pequot Chairman Rodney Butler.
Both said they were encouraged by the enthusiastic reception they received in East Windsor.
“Both of our tribes are in this because we want to protect Connecticut jobs,” Brown said. “We are from this state and we aren’t going anywhere. Our reservations are based in this state and will be there forever.”
Butler added that the cornerstone of what the two tribes want to do is “work with the community that wants to work with us.”
East Windsor’s charter does not require the casino expansion to be put to a referendum vote. Windsor Locks has said a vote will be necessary before going forward.
One of the organizations hoping the casino will be built in East Windsor is the East Windsor Police Union.
“We polled our members and they feel strongly that a casino will be positive for East Windsor, Sgt. Jeffrey Reimer, president of the 25-member union said. “It will help the local economy by bringing good jobs to our community and generating revenues that will benefit our entire town.”
Reimer added: “It’s understandable that some might question the impact a casino would have on crime and traffic. We believe MMCT’s proposal will turn an abandoned commercial zone into a vibrant and exciting area, buzzing with activity. The people at MMCT appear committed to working with us to maintain and improve public safety in our town.”
No matter what happens, the construction of a new, off-tribal-land casino is expected to result in a lawsuit against the state.
MGM Resorts International has already sued the state claiming its decision to only let the two federally recognized tribes bid on a third casino violated the Commerce and the Equal Protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution.
However, in July 2016 a District Court ruling said MGM failed to “adequately allege an injury” from the special act. MGM has appealed that ruling and oral arguments were heard in November. No decision has been issued thus far.