At Foxwoods' helm, Butler taking the long view

Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Chairman Rodney Butler poses for a photo outside of the tribe's Foxwoods Resort Casino on Feb. 3, 2012. Last month, the council named Butler, 41, the interim chief executive officer of Foxwoods following the sudden death of Felix Rappaport. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Chairman Rodney Butler poses for a photo outside of the tribe's Foxwoods Resort Casino on Feb. 3, 2012. Last month, the council named Butler, 41, the interim chief executive officer of Foxwoods following the sudden death of Felix Rappaport. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Mashantucket — Members of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe have elected Rodney Butler chairman of the Tribal Council three times since 2009.

He said Friday he hopes they’ll do it again in November.

Butler, 41, whom the council last month named interim chief executive officer of the tribe's Foxwoods Resort Casino following the sudden death of Felix Rappaport, confirmed that he plans to seek re-election to a sixth three-year council term. In the meantime, he’ll be at Foxwoods’ helm as it encounters the stiffest competition it has faced in the more than 22 years since Mohegan Sun opened.

MGM Springfield, Massachusetts’ first resort casino, is set to debut in three weeks.

“Oh, is that coming up? I thought it was a couple of months off,” Butler joked during an interview in Foxwoods’ executive offices.

“It’s not the first time we’ve faced competition,” he said. “In the beginning, we were drawing from as far away as Washington, D.C. Then there was Mohegan Sun, then (competition from) Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Maryland. So this isn’t so different; it’s just another layer.”

Butler said Foxwoods had been preparing for MGM Springfield under Rappaport, the gaming kingpin who arrived from Las Vegas in 2014. Rappaport was found dead on the morning of June 18 in the Foxwoods hotel suite where he often stayed, the victim of an apparent heart attack.

No succession plan was in place.

“We were in the middle of talking about a contract extension,” Butler said. “He was 65 years old, a young guy, really, in great shape. I was speaking to him the previous day. That (Monday) morning, I was returning his emails from the night before and getting no response ...”

Foxwoods has been talking to executive search firms, and expects to name a permanent CEO within a couple of months. The strength of the Foxwoods brand and Rappaport’s stature in the industry ensure that the caliber of the candidates, some of whom have made direct inquiries, will be high, Butler said.

“Felix really changed the landscape in Las Vegas with his focus on entertainment and he brought that here,” Butler said. “Compared to when he arrived, the property is unrecognizable — new restaurants, the Tanger mall, new slot machines, go-karts, a zip line. Just today we’re opening a craft brewery ...”

While reinventing Foxwoods has been a big part of the Mashantuckets’ two-pronged response to MGM Springfield’s coming, the other thrust has been the tribe’s collaboration with the Mohegans on an East Windsor casino. So far, MGM Resorts International has been able to gum up the works.

Butler, admitting to some “frustration” over delays that have beset the project, said the tribes believe a report of an investigation of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s handling of their amended compacts with the state will be released “in coming weeks.” He said the tribes expect the probe will conclude that MGM Resorts exerted undue influence in the process.

“It will be favorable to our point of view,” Butler said of the much-anticipated report.

Interior’s delays in approving the compacts prevented the tribes from moving forward in East Windsor. Though Interior eventually published notice that the Mohegans’ compact was effective, it has yet to take similar action regarding the Mashantuckets’ compact. In a pending federal lawsuit, the state and the Mashantuckets are seeking to compel Interior to act.

MGM Resorts also has tried to derail the tribes by calling for an open bidding process for commercial casinos in Connecticut and by proposing to develop a $675 million casino in Bridgeport. In May, the Las Vegas-based operator announced it was buying Empire City Casino in Yonkers, N.Y., just north of New York City.

“They are a formidable competitor,” the diplomatic Butler said of MGM Resorts. “They do what it takes to win.”

He said that if not for the delays in securing federal approvals, the tribes could have opened their East Windsor casino next year. Now, he said, they expect to start construction in the fall and finish in early 2020.

“Every month we’re not open saves MGM $10 million, that’s the bottom line,” Butler said.

In regard to sports betting, Butler would reveal little about the tribes’ ongoing negotiations with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who has indicated the state legislature could be called into a special session if an agreement is reached.

“He’s the straightest shooter I’ve ever met in my life, whether people like him or not,” Butler said of Malloy, who is not seeking re-election in November. “He’d like to get something done.”

The negotiations began with the tribes maintaining that their compacts grant them the exclusive right to provide sports betting in Connecticut. Some, including state Attorney General George Jepsen, differ with that position, and other entities, including Sportech Venues, the state’s off-track betting provider, are interested in a piece of the action.

New Jersey recently introduced sports betting, and Rhode Island is expected to do so this fall.

In Connecticut, Butler said legislative action during a special session this summer or early fall could provide “an opportunity to get ahead of Massachusetts and New York to build some market share.”

“If we can come up with something shortly ... you still could be betting on the Super Bowl,” he said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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