Dan Haar: Tribes start East Windsor demolition but casino could be eight years away
EAST WINDSOR — It’s fun when bulldozers tear down useless buildings, and that’s what the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes started doing up in East Windsor on Monday as they plan a casino at the site of movie theater that never should have been built.
Too bad they’re not blowing up the old Showcase Cinemas; that would have made better pictures.
When will the casino open? The chairmen of the tribes said it will happen in 24 months. In fact, it could take eight years to slog through two federal lawsuits, financing and actual construction.
Consider: Monday was also the day the state and the tribes were due to file briefs in a federal lawsuit against the Department of the Interior in their effort to win final approval of changes to the state’s 25-year-old compact with the tribes. That case is a reminder that the tribes — operating jointly as MMCT Venture — are nowhere near being able to build the casino along I-91.
The eight-year figure is based on a realistic timeline if the lawsuits drag on, which is exactly what MGM Resorts International wants to see as the Las Vegas company opens its MGM Springfield Casino this fall.
We don’t know what the gaming landscape will even look like in six or eight years.
Why so long? First, we’re talking about the tribes and the state suing a Trump administration that seems opposed to the change, although the tribes, the governor and Connecticut’s U.S. senators all say the change is legally sound.
Then we’re looking at MGM re-filing its 2015 lawsuit claiming the state violated its constitutional right to bid on the proposal.
Recall, the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York threw out that lawsuit, saying MGM didn’t have standing because Connecticut hadn’t granted MMCT a license. Well, now MMCT has that license and MGM most likely has standing and can file the lawsuit — after the current federal squabble over approval ends, perhaps in 2019 or 2020.
That MGM lawsuit could easily take three years. Then MMCT, if it wins or settles favorably, could line up financing to build East Windsor. And that $300 million project could take a couple of years to open just from that point.
The mood was bright under a partly sunny sky at the site on Monday, as a crowd of union workers and politicians watched the bulldozers take their bites.
Kevin Brown and Rodney Butler, the tribal chairmen of the Mohegan Tribe and the Mashantucket Tribal Nation, respectively, not only declared a two-year timeline to actually open — based on the tribes moving ahead despite the lawsuits — but also promised they will hire at least 350 people from Hartford, 150 from East Hartford and 175 from surrounding towns.
Jobs are the calling card. Later this week, lawmakers in the General Assembly will hear comments on a new bill that would revoke the East Windsor license and open casino development to bids — from MMCT, MGM, Wynn, Caesar’s or you and me.
MGM hopes that will lead to approval of its $675 million plan for Bridgeport, a sensible place to build a casino considering proximity to New York.
But the open-bidding bill, a.k.a. the MGM bill, has a low chance of passing as long as it revokes the East Windsor casino license. They’re asking a majority of the House and Senate to undo what they did last year in a bitterly fought bill in which MMCT promised jobs and revenue for Connecticut.
MMCT wanted to make sure to get a wall or two knocked down ahead of the hearing. Active bulldozers look like progress.
In fact, we have a stalemate. Absent a negotiated deal, we’re likely to see nothing in Bridgeport and nothing in East Windsor anytime soon.
It might not take the full eight years. Two years? That’s a wildly optimistic schedule from the partnership that took two years to pick a town.
But it sure is fun watching the movie theater walls come tumbling down.