Dan Haar: MGM Bridgeport Casino Solves A Lot Of Problems

To understand the importance of a Bridgeport casino to Connecticut, especially the $675 million plan MGM Resorts International announced Monday morning, let’s go back a few days to the meltdown at the state Capitol.

Just before midnight on Thursday, at the moment when the state House of Representatives was supposed to vote on a budget, Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, still in a crisp suit, huddled with a handful of guys right outside the door of the House chamber. Bridgeport wasn’t happy with the Democrats’ plan.

The vote never happened, for that and other reasons. Twenty-four hours later, the Republican budget passed in a tense and historic turnaround.

We may never know exactly what went down under the tarnished gold dome of the Capitol, but this much is clear: Bridgeport is the state’s biggest city, a struggling urban gap in the heart of affluent Fairfield County. This city, this part of the state, is fed up with Hartford around now — and state approval of a casino resort in a languishing development zone on the harbor would go a long way toward reunifying Connecticut.

A casino here makes sense economically if we’re going to bank on gambling as part of the state’s strategy over the next decade. Why? Seven words: New York City is one hour away.

Not everyone agrees that Connecticut should depend on casinos for salvation. Looking 20 years out, I’m in the camp with the skeptics. But we’re in for a dime — a lot of dimes — and we might as well let MGM spend the whole dollar in the city that’s next in line up the coast as the New York universe fans out. Stamford. Norwalk. Bridgeport.

It’s absolutely false to say nothing else is working in Connecticut. But we’ve had enough bad news lately to make this plan look better every day.

“I know Bridgeport’s very historic, important roots and it’s heartbreaking to see what’s happened over the last 60 years,” said Jim Murren, CEO of MGM Resorts International, at the banks of Bridgeport Harbor Monday, where he announced a plan to build the MGM Bridgeport casino.

Oh, he knows the city’s history all right. He was born here and grew up next door in Fairfield. His great-grandfather settled in Connecticut from Ireland. His late father was a state representative from Redding. His mother still lives in Fairfield and is moving back to the Park City soon. Four of his old school chums from Fairfield stood quietly off to the side, waiting to give him hugs after most of the media had left.

“How do I feel? There’s an emotional and visceral positive reaction to this that I couldn’t get if I were building someplace else in the world,” said Murren, a left-handed pitcher at Ludlow High School, then Trinity College (Class of ’83) in Hartford, where he’s on the board of trustees.

Regardless, MGM has a decent chance of prevailing in court and, anyway, there’s always a way to make a deal work when new money is involved.

This was the city where such luminaries as Donald Trump and later, gaming mogul Steve Wynn — a New Haven native — wanted to bring a casino a generation ago. Now might be the time.

“It’s about jobs,” Ganim said. “Make this an opportunity to create revenue to support teachers and create jobs.”

New Haven Mayor Toni Harp, who made the 20-minute drive to back the plan, said, “The high drama that played out at the Capitol last week underscores the unique circumstances we’re in.”

Across the harbor, pilings underway are part of the prep work for 2,000 apartments by the Steelpointe Harbor master developer, RCI Group, which redeveloped Miami Beach back when casinos were first envisioned in Connecticut and now has projects in San Diego, Fort Lauderdale and a half-dozen other locations. “Bridgeport is No. 1 for our family,” said Robert W. Christoph Jr. of RCI, who was at the site with his father, the chairman.

“We can take a town like Bridgeport and turn it around,” Christoph said. “Bridgeport has got all the infrastructure to be a great city.”

Soon after we spoke, the P.T. Barnum ferry boat inched into a harbor that’s lined with vestiges of the past — some ancient, like the old power plant, some more recent, like the hulking Derecktor shipyard where we stood. It closed a few years ago but RCI hopes to attract a new shipyard to the site.

I spoke with two young guys on a porch in the adjacent East End neighborhood. “That’s what they need to do, give jobs to people who live in the city,” said Jason Greene.

“That’s always the way it’s supposed to be but it never works like that,” Tony James retorted. James is an ironworker whose work has been, he said, “up and down.”

Across the harbor inlet, the Bass Pro store was a questionable $31 million investment by the state. This one wouldn’t cost taxpayer money but it would require an even bigger risk, one that’s worth taking. I asked Murren whether his father would have voted for this plan.

“He would have voted for me,” he said instantly.

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