It's only June, but already the Mohegans are looking forward to New Year's Day.
That's because the dawn of 2015 will mark the end of the tribe's so-called "relinquishment agreement" with its original partners, Trading Cove Associates, the people responsible for developing, building, marketing and, in the early days, running Mohegan Sun, the tribe's flagship casino.
At long last, the Mohegans will be free of the terms of that agreement, essentially a buyout of Trading Cove's exclusive rights to manage the casino and its hotel, which, at the time the agreement was signed, had yet to be built.
Intent on controlling its own destiny, the tribe agreed to pay Trading Cove 5 percent of Mohegan Sun's gross revenues for 15 years.
By early next year, the Mohegans will have paid Trading Cove more than $900 million to not manage the casino. If not for the Great Recession's effect on Mohegan Sun's revenues — growing competition in the Northeast is another culprit — the payments would likely have cleared the billion-dollar mark.
So was it a good deal for the tribe? Or would the Mohegans have been better off letting Trading Cove's original seven-year management contract run out in 2003? That deal called for Trading Cove to earn up to 40 percent of the casino's net revenues.
"I don't feel it appropriate to comment on a decision made nearly 15 years ago," said Kevin Brown, the Mohegan Tribal Council chairman, who was elected to the nine-member body in August. "I can tell you that I and the tribal council are looking forward to the last payment."
Brown's brother, Mark Brown, who's been a council member since 1995, chose not to elaborate on Kevin's statement. "Talk to Roland Harris," he suggested.
Harris, the council chairman when the relinquishment agreement was forged and signed in 1999, has at times been vilified by those who believe the terms were overly generous to Trading Cove.
In an interview Friday at his Griswold home, Harris stood by the agreement, which the council approved.
"For the tribe, it was the right thing to do," he said. "It wasn't just me [who favored it]; I was just the chairman. … It was a business decision, as simple as that. Given all the same conditions, I'd do it again."
In 1994, Harris resigned as Griswold first selectman to work as the tribe's planner. Elected to the tribal council in 1995, he left in 2006 and has been unsuccessful in attempts to reclaim a council seat.
"Hey, I'm glad the payments are coming to an end, too, just like everybody else," Harris said.
One has to remember, he said, that back in the late 1990s, the tribe needed to expand Mohegan Sun's original footprint, and fast, or risk being crushed by Foxwoods Resort Casino, its nearby competitor, which had a head start.
Gaming experts told the council it had a five-year window in which to grow, Harris said. At the same time, the tribe yearned for autonomy.
"I don't even like to call them 'relinquishment payments.' It sounds anti-business," he said.
"I'd call them a cost of self-determination."
Harris dismissed the suggestion that the tribe agreed to relinquishment terms that were overly favorable to Trading Cove out of a desire to short-circuit protracted negotiations or even litigation.
"It had nothing to do with sweetening the pot," he said.
He noted that the agreement was already in place when the tribe obtained the financing for its Sunburst expansion project, which included the hotel. That's evidence, he said, that the financial markets considered the agreement's terms appropriate.