Photo: Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticut Media
The effort to build a casino in Bridgeport goes back generations now. Where the debate once centered around Steve Wynn and Donald Trump, it now involves MGM International and the tribes that operate the state’s existing casinos. And what had only recently looked like a long shot appears much more possible thanks to a deal announced among legislators this week.
Assessing whether that deal makes sense for Bridgeport and the state will require much more information. For now, it appears to be seriously one-sided in favor of the tribes, and has the appearance of Bridgeport officials deciding that any casino — even one lacking amenities they have long sought in a development — is better than no casino at all.
That is a questionable proposition, and judging by his statement Wednesday, Gov. Ned Lamont is not on board.
The new deal would reject MGM’s 2017 proposal to build a $675 million casino development on prime waterfront property in favor of a much smaller plan from the tribes. It’s not as though Bridgeport is in a position to look down on a $100 million proposal, which is what the tribes have come up with, but compared to the MGM plan — or compared to MGM’s recently opened $1.2 billion casino complex in Springfield, Mass. — it’s legitimate to wonder what the city is getting.
Proponents say the minimalist casino in Bridgeport would encourage other development nearby, though that’s far from a sure thing.
Any casino would have a major impact far beyond Bridgeport, and the effect on issues including traffic, workforce development and problem gambling make this an issue of importance for everyone in Connecticut.
The new deal also allows the tribes to continue with plans for its East Windsor casino, a move championed as a way to divert customers away from crossing state lines to go to Springfield. It also means one of the smallest states in the union would quickly go from having two casinos to four — an invitation to oversaturation of the market.
In the final analysis, the state has very little leverage when it comes to new casino development because of its 1990s compact with the tribes that provides a share of slot revenue in exchange for exclusive gaming rights. Any casino plan from someone other than the tribes would have to reckon with the loss of that revenue coming in every year, which the tribes say would stop immediately upon agreement with another party.
A state that continues to limp from one budget season to the next simply cannot afford to make that move, no matter what riches might await down the road.
And none of this touches on internet gaming and sports betting, also included in the new deal. Those are vital issues to the future of state finances, and would be better handled in agreements separate from casino considerations.
Either way, there are still many more questions than answers. A Bridgeport casino may be closer, but there are far too many uncertainties to call it a sure thing.