Mashantucket Pequots Set Sights on Casino Venture in Mississippi

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If you want to be successful, sometimes you have to think outside the box. Or outside the state, as the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation has discovered.

The Southeastern Connecticut-based tribe, which once faced near extinction and now owns Foxwoods Resort Casino, one of the largest resort casinos in North America, will build another casino of the same name in Biloxi, Mississippi, in partnership with three non-native enterprises: Biloxi Boardwalk Venture, LLC, Chris Ferrara-Sponsor and The Hartmann Group, LLC.

The price tag for the proposed 37-acre project on the site of the former Heinz plant is estimated at $265 million. The 781,00-square-foot complex, to be named “Foxwoods Resort Casino at Biloxi Pointe,” will feature all the bells and whistles of a major gambling resort: 50,000 square feet of casino space, a 500-room hotel, 71,000 square feet of meeting space, six restaurants and bars, shops, a spa and outdoor entertainment.

biloxipointecasino.com

A bird's eye view of the proposed casino's coastal location

The project, expected to be completed in 2019, is not without its challenges. Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Council, talked to Indian Country Today Media Network about the big build.

Your tribe already owns a successful casino, golf course, spa and pharmaceutical network. Why the interest in this casino outside your state?

We have been looking at geographic diversification for years now, and we have made several attempts – both successful and unsuccessful. If it hadn’t been for the challenging economic times and the collapse of financial markets around the world in 2008, those projects would have moved forward. So it’s exciting that it is actually coming to fruition after a lot of effort over the years—the ability to leverage our brand and our management expertise well beyond New England in a market where we think that we can have a real impact.

Does it concern you that there are already 13 casinos, including at least one that has failed, along the Mississippi coast—and Foxwoods would be the ninth one in the city of Biloxi?

Biloxi is a strongly competitive market where we think that our brand can add some value. But we will have to operate accordingly. It’s all about programming and developing something that fits the market, as opposed to overinvesting in any given market.

Speaking of programming … Do you have any plans to capture the frugal millennial market—money-making adults who don’t like spending and haven’t shown much interest in gambling?

Millennials are key and something we are focusing on here at Foxwoods, and in Biloxi, as well. Like everyone else, millennials want to have a good time and get value for the time and money they’re spending, and be entertained. The concept down in Biloxi will be similar to what we are doing in Connecticut, where we have expanded well beyond gaming in providing entertainment opportunities. At Foxwoods, we have just rolled out our reinvigorated FoxPlay, our online social-gaming platform. It’s much more interactive and creates exposure to our brand here at Foxwoods. We find it brings people into our physical property, as well.

How will FoxPlay drive millennials to the new Biloxi casino?

It’s all for fun, not real money. So we tie in offers back to the property. Instead of winning cash, players can win various prizes – like an overnight stay at Foxwoods, or dinner at one of our fine restaurants. Or even go to a show for free.

How much is your tribe contributing to this project?

There is an initial investment of $2 million. But the program is going to call for a capital raise and we will decide at that point if there’s any more that the tribe will put up.

Who are your business partners and how did this relationship develop?

One of the partners, Jeff Hartmann, started his casino career with us back in the ‘90s as our chief financial officer. He’s been a leader in the industry ever since, and this project is one that he presented to us because of our strong brand and recognizable management expertise. Chris Ferrara is a very successful business man in Gulf Coast area.

Are you also partnering with an overseas investor?

Not at this point. But the EB-5 program has been used across the country for various development projects. The idea is that if foreign investors contribute at least $1 million to a business and create at least 10 jobs, each investor will receive green cards. Not sure if any tribes have used it or not. We do not have any specific overseas investor in mind.

The new casino will be located in the Back Bay of Biloxi. Are you concerned about it being somewhat remote?

It is actually not remote at all. It is about a mile off the main drive in Biloxi. The city has been developing a loop around East Biloxi for years that will connect all four corners of Biloxi. The city has been committed to finishing that loop and a portion of it is already under construction today. There’s a last leg that connects this property to the main roads of Biloxi.

Lynn Armitage is a contributing writer and an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.