New England Gaming Summit debuts

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UNCASVILLE, Conn. – With the recession lingering and new or expanded gaming venues on the horizon in the northeast, the two largest casinos in New England – and the United States – are facing unprecedented challenges.

The first New England Gaming Summit focused largely on the effects of the economy on the gaming market and the potential for, and possible impacts of, future growth in the region.

The New England Gaming Summit debuted Sept. 21 at the Mohegan Sun, drawing 250 tribal leaders, casino executives, lawyers, policy-makers, elected officials and industry analysts for a short, but intense, daylong event.

Expert panelists spoke on subjects like tribal gaming, regional competition, the economic and social impacts of gaming, racinos, legislation and more.

“New pieces of this New England gaming puzzle are being written every single day,” said Rodney A. Butler, chairman of the council of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, which owns Foxwoods Resort Casino. “This market will continue to evolve – in what direction, I’m not certain. But I do know the added competition in the New England market will certainly add its challenges and opportunities.”

New slot venues are already operating in Rhode Island and New York. New additional casinos are on the horizon as Massachusetts moves closer to passing gaming legislation. New Hampshire is considering gaming, and the Shinnecock Indian Nation on Long Island will soon exercise its right to operate a gaming facility as a newly federally recognized tribe.

“We’re seeing people changing their habits. People are saving more and spending less,” said Mitchell Grossinger Etess, the president and CEO of the Mohegan Tribe’s Mohegan Sun casino and CEO of Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority during a luncheon keynote address.

In his keynote address in the morning, Butler reviewed the history of the development of Foxwoods, the iconic Indian resort casino that grew from a tiny bingo hall to world prominence in less than 20 years.

Foxwoods opened in February 1992 with 46,000 square feet of gaming space and 170 table games, and with the completion of MGM Grand in 2008 has expanded to a total of almost 5 million square feet of space for gaming, hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail shops, spas, entertainment venues and all the amenities of a resort.

The Foxwoods enterprise employs 9,000 people, spends more than $225 million a year in contracted goods and services from New England businesses; has contributed $3 billion in slot revenues to the state; and has given more than $85 million in charitable donations and scholarships.

The pressure of the competition and the recession have hit Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. Foxwoods continues to struggle to restructure $2.3 billion in debt and last month, Mohegan Sun announced the layoff of more than 350 employees.

Things have definitely changed, Butler said.

“It’s a different economic landscape out there. I encourage everyone in the current market or on the cusp of entering it to navigate wisely through the current economic challenges as they will continue to challenge us for some time.”

Etess stressed the positive economic effects casinos can have on a region.

“Gaming is an industry that can help stimulate your economy. That can create jobs. That can create construction jobs. That can get a lot of things happening in your area. Just look at what southeastern Connecticut would look like if there was no gaming industry. There would be 20,000 people not working.”

Mohegan is poised to be a player in the Massachusetts market once the state passes gaming legislation. The nation has a 99-year lease on property in Palmer, Mass., in the western part of the state.

Jennifer Baruffaldi, a member of a grassroots group called Citizens for Jobs and Growth in Palmer, which supports the tribe’s efforts, attended the summit.

“We’re here for jobs. We really want a resort casino in our town. We want to hear more about the gaming and we want jobs and economic growth.”

The summit also gave voice to casino opponents such as Marvin Steinberg, executive director of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gaming.

“I don’t think they understand that problems that they have now will be greatly increased. Certainly there will be benefits but they don’t understand what it means to have casinos in their state.”

Clyde W. Barrow, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth, predicted that the Massachusetts gaming facilities, whenever they come online, would likely have more of an impact on Foxwoods than on Mohegan Sun.

Around 36 percent of Foxwoods customers come from the Bay State compared to around 20 percent for Mohegan Sun.

An afternoon panel on “Tribal Gaming in New England” featured Bruce “Two Dogs” Bozsum, Pipe Carrier and Mohegan Tribal Council member; Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe; Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoaag Tribe, among others.

All three tribal leaders spoke of the traumatic impact settler colonists had on their eastern seaboard tribes, the most devastating being the loss of their aboriginal lands.

The summit was sponsored by Spectrum Gaming Group and BMP Media Gaming Group.

“The New England Gaming Summit was a big success because it accomplished its primary goal: Serving as a sounding board for policy makers and others to express their concerns and put forth their ideas. The most challenging part was assembling this list of great speakers, and fitting it into all their schedules. We received very positive feedback, from speakers and attendees, who all learned a great deal about gaming in New England,” said Michael Pollock, co-owner and co-director of the Spectrum Gaming Group.

The summit will be held again next year, but the venue has not yet been determined.