MGM's CEO still bullish on a Bridgeport casino

Trumbull — MGM Resorts International’s top executive returned to the Bridgeport area Tuesday to talk up his plan to build a $675 million resort casino in the city — a plan that’ll never be more than a dream unless he can persuade state lawmakers to authorize it.

Jim Murren, the MGM chairman and chief executive officer, admitted as much during a 25-minute address to the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, a group that seemed mighty receptive. Nearly 500 people packed a Trumbull Marriott ballroom to hear Murren, the keynote speaker at the group’s annual dinner meeting.

The native son — Murren was born in Bridgeport and raised in nearby Fairfield — got a standing ovation.

His opponent, he said, is not the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegans, the Native American tribes that have a monopoly on casinos in the state, including a proposed East Windsor one that would take direct aim at MGM’s Springfield, Mass., project-in-progress.

No, Murren said, MGM’s opponent is the “lack of information,” “misinformation” and “dated information” surrounding what needs to be a fresh debate about gaming and casinos in Connecticut.

The state needs to “modernize its gaming profile,” he said. And when it comes to commercial gaming, “Wouldn’t you want to do it the best way ... following best practices?”

Murren said he’s disturbed about the state of Connecticut’s economy and the “precipitous decline” in revenues at the tribes’ casinos, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. He noted that their combined slot-machine payments to the state have fallen from a 2007 peak of $430 million to less than $270 million in the most recent fiscal year.

“And they’re on their way to $175 million,” he said.

When the tribes signed their gaming compacts with the state — agreements that spelled out revenue-sharing terms — there were no competing casinos in New York, Rhode Island was just getting started, Atlantic City was much different than it is now and Pennsylvania hadn’t yet approved casinos, Murren said.

“I’m not here to say I’m against tribal gaming,” he said, noting that he championed tribes’ membership in the American Gaming Association, a casino trade group. “I’m just saying that what was agreed to 25 years ago should be revisited. And MGM’s the right partner to join that conversation.”

Murren’s remarks differed from those he reportedly made during a conference call last month during which he told investors that except for a potential casino in Japan, his company was finished building new resorts.

“Cotai (MGM’s newest Macau property) is on the horizon, opens in January,” the Las Vegas Sun quoted Murren as saying. “And Springfield, Mass., will be the home of our newest property, and our last major development here in the United States when it opens in September.”

Reportedly, he made no mention of Bridgeport during the call.

MGM has sought to derail the tribes’ East Windsor project for more than two years, battling it without success in federal court and otherwise opposing it at every turn.

In new litigation, the state and the tribes filed suit last week against the U.S. Department of the Interior over the department’s failure to approve amendments to the gaming agreements. Federal approval of the amendments is a condition of the state law authorizing the East Windsor casino.

The Coalition Against Casino Expansion in Connecticut, an alliance of more than a dozen faith-based and other groups, announced Tuesday that it will conduct a public meeting Thursday in Bridgeport to discuss the economic and social costs of MGM’s proposed Bridgeport casino. Former Congressman Bob Steele of Essex, a Republican who represented eastern Connecticut from 1970 to 1975, will be the featured speaker.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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