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Mohegan Tribe, Legislator Talk About Expanding Gaming

Would Connecticut expand gaming to include a slots parlor on I-91 between Hartford and Springfield?

The Mohegan tribe and at least one legislator are interested in expanding gambling to include some type of attraction along I-91 to curb the flow of Connecticut residents to an MGM Springfield casino when it opens in 2017.

"From the business side, I can certainly visualize a legislative solution that would permit some sort of expanded gaming, maybe even if it was just slots somewhere near the Massachusetts border that would protect the tax revenues of Connecticut," Mitchell Grossinger Etess, CEO of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, which operates Mohegan Sun, said Tuesday.

The legislative co-chairman of a committee overseeing gambling said Tuesday he wants to hold a meeting to discuss the idea before Thanksgiving.

Connecticut taxpayers benefit from tax revenues on slot machines at Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino, and those revenues have been declining as more gambling options pop up in neighboring states.

MGM Resorts International is building an $800 million casino on three city blocks in the south end of downtown Springfield. It's one of three resort casinos expected to open in Massachusetts, not including a slots parlor, all of which are expected to gobble up money that New England customers have been spending at Connecticut's two casinos.

"There's no question that if you put some sort of gaming facility somewhere in the border area, it would effectively cut off the vast majority of the business that was anticipated to be sucked out of Connecticut to the MGM casino," Etess said.

People like to play slots closer to home so they don't have to drive. It's called convenience gambling, and it has eroded revenue at both Connecticut casinos. For example, Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway is a relatively new slots parlor and it has reduced the flow of New York City customers to Connecticut casinos, Etess said.

To face the new gambling competition head on, Rep. Peggy Sayers of Windsor Locks issued a media release last week saying Connecticut should take bold and immediate action to protect and expand the state's gaming industry.

"Connecticut's native American Tribes have developed two world-class gaming resorts that have brought thousands of jobs and millions in economic development to this state for nearly two decades," Sayers said in a statement. "We are living in new and different times, with increased competition in every surrounding state, and we need to support and protect the jobs in our state."

She vowed to begin discussions with other legislators in the coming weeks to make recommendations when the General Assembly convenes in January. This week, however, she is on a cruise and was unavailable for comment.

Many legislators and government workers were unavailable on Veterans Day. Aides for legislative leaders said there had not been any discussions to expand gaming, though it's only one week after the election and there is plenty of time before the General Assembly meets next year.

"This is not something we have previously considered," Andrew Doba, spokesman for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, said in a statement.

Any type of expanded gaming would require agreement by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, which owns and operates Foxwoods; the Mohegan Tribe and the General Assembly. State law requires both houses of the legislature to approve a state-tribal compact or an amendment to one, according to a 2002 report by the Office of Legislative Research.

"I think at this point, it's all preliminary," said Charles F. Bunnell, Mohegan chief of staff of external and governmental affairs. "The chairman of the Mohegan tribe, Kevin Brown, has said that he certainly is ready to have those discussions."

The idea of putting slots along I-91 near the Massachusetts border has been brought up from time to time in recent years.

"There are parcels along that [I-91] corridor just south of Springfield that would be very nice," Bunnell said. "If you already have four walls, all you need to do is run the appropriate surveillance equipment and all of those things and move in once you get legislative approval."

In other words, it could be up and running before MGM Springfield opens in 2017.

A spokesman for the Mashantucket Pequot tribe could not be reached Tuesday.

Rep. Stephen Dargan, D-West Haven, oversees gambling issues as co-chairman of the legislature's public safety and security committee. He said on Tuesday that he plans to organize a meeting to get all gaming interests together in the next two weeks and discuss a range of issues, including the possibility of expanding gaming to include a slots parlor. Dargan hasn't taken a stance on the issue, but he said believes it is worth discussing.

"My argument is that we should at least look at it because the two tribes have been very successful. There's competition around them," Dargan said. "They've been good not only for southeastern Connecticut, but they've been good for ... jobs."

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