Published November 10. 2013 4:00AM
Voters' apparent rejection last week of a casino proposed by Mohegan Sun in Palmer, Mass., could be a bad deal for southeastern Connecticut - and another defeat at the polls Nov. 19 of a separate plan by Foxwoods to build a gambling resort in Milford, Mass., would be the equivalent of snake eyes.
This region's fortunes are tied to the success of its two casinos, which is why The Day was disappointed by Tuesday's close vote in Palmer - a recount is expected - but remains hopeful citizens will ante up for the Milford initiative.
Foxwoods, which opened in 1992, and Mohegan Sun, launched four years later, have prospered because for years their closest competition was in Atlantic City, N.J. The region and state have shared in this prosperity: Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun have employed tens of thousands of workers; combined they have contributed nearly $6 billion to the Connecticut General Fund based on 25 percent of slot machine revenues.
Due to new gambling venues in New York, Rhode Island and Maine and the recession, those numbers have tumbled in recent years. Today the combined work force at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun stands at about 15,000 - still among the region's largest employers - while their total annual contributions to the state have plummeted by nearly a third from a peak of $430.5 million in the 2006-07 fiscal year to about $285 million expected this year.
With Massachusetts preparing to open up to three casinos in the next few years Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun stand to see their market shares shrink even more dramatically, but both were planning to recoup those losses by becoming partners with host communities in the Bay State.
Nearly two-thirds of voters in Palmer turned out Tuesday to defeat the Mohegan Sun plan 2,657 to 2,564. Mohegan Sun and a pro-casino group in the small Massachusetts community 20 miles west of Springfield have indicated they will seek a recount.
The Mohegans had made Palmer a generous offer in exchange for the right to build their billion-dollar casino, indoor-outdoor aquatic park and two hotels - nearly $3 million up front and fixed annual payments of $15.2 million plus a percentage of gaming revenue - but grass-roots opposition focused on increased traffic, higher potential for crime and other quality-of-life issues in orchestrating the measure's defeat.
The towns of Ledyard, Preston and North Stonington never had the opportunity to consider such an offer when the Mashantucket Pequots gained federal recognition and negotiated a deal with the legislature and governor to open Foxwoods, nor did Montville when the Mohegan tribe opened the Sun.
We can't fault Palmer voters for rejecting the Mohegan proposal - Foxwoods and Mohegan have not provided the same quality jobs in pharmaceuticals and the defense industry once dominant in southeastern Connecticut. But the casinos here did help revive a local economy hurt by job losses both at Pfizer and Electric Boat. Without our two casino businesses this region's economy would be considerably worse off.
On Tuesday, voters in Revere, Mass., approved a plan to build a casino at the old Suffolk Downs race track, but those in neighboring East Boston rejected it, leaving the project's future in considerable doubt. In July, voters in Springfield approved MGM Resorts International's plan to build an $800 million casino; a final decision is pending on MGM's application for a Massachusetts license.
If voters in Milford approve Foxwoods' billion-dollar casino plan Nov. 19, the Massachusetts Gaming Authority would then have to rule on a license. Earlier this month one Massachusetts legislator wrote a letter to the authority questioning Foxwoods' suitability, citing the Mashantucket Pequots' 2010 default and felony convictions of former tribal councilors.
The authority has proven to be a wild card in the application process; Suffolk Downs dumped Caesars Entertainment of Las Vegas as a partner when it looked like the commission would find Caesars unfit.
Even if southeastern Connecticut's two casinos go bust in Massachusetts they may wind up striking a deal in New York, where voters on Tuesday approved a state constitutional amendment allowing up to seven commercially operated casinos.
This newspaper hopes Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun prevail in their expansion plans, to ensure their economic vitality and to combine marketing strategies and entertainment bookings with casino partners.
But until the dust settles in Massachusetts and New York, it would appear all bets are off.