Hugh Bailey: Planning a future without casinos
The quest for Bridgeport to build a casino, which has dragged on for a few decades now, didn’t look any closer to ending as the regular legislative session came to a close on Wednesday. Still, it had new momentum, and a last-minute move to bring the Indian tribes in and push MGM out lays the groundwork for a plan that could satisfy everyone.
Bridgeport wants a casino (or any major development, really). The state doesn’t want to mess with its compact with the tribes that gives them exclusive gaming rights. And MGM, much more than it wants to build in Bridgeport, wants the tribes not to build in East Windsor, as is currently planned, because that directly competes with MGM’s recently opened Springfield, Mass., facility.
If the tribes abandoned East Windsor and took up the Bridgeport plan, that could leave most parties mostly happy, in theory. As it happens, that’s not the deal that was presented to the state, leaving the Lamont administration to call it “really bad” and basically kill it.
Hearst Connecticut Media columnist Dan Haar explained succinctly why all this is happening. In essence, the tribes aren’t abandoning East Windsor, which is guaranteed to ruin any chance of MGM going along with it. There’s still hope something could be resurrected, but, even in a best-case scenario, it’s not clear whether it would be in the best interests of the state or its largest city, which was supposed to be the point of all this.
It’s not too late for everyone to remember that casinos don’t make sense as economic development strategies. There are trade-offs, huge social costs and a soon-to-be-saturated Northeast market.
Instead of continuing on this path, with Connecticut desperately trying to keep up as New York and Massachusetts flood the zone, we could try something that offers more in the way of stability. It’s not as though a third casino would satisfy our needs. If recent history in the region is any guide, it would underperform initial estimates and leave us still in search of a long-term answer to our growth problems.
We could start by looking up the road in New Haven.
The MGM plan for Bridgeport as introduced in 2017 brought New Haven into the deal, as well, promising to build a job-training center there and offering subsidies aimed at generating more support in the General Assembly. With Bridgeport turning to the tribes in an attempt to salvage a casino plan, New Haven was cut out, prompting the city to submit a wish list of sorts for projects it wanted to see in return for losing out on casino dollars.
The list included items like $70 million for transit-oriented development; $50 million for capital improvements to public space and coastal resiliency; and $50 million for lab space development, according to reporting by Hearst Connecticut Media.
It adds up to a lot of money. It also looks like a much more promising economic development plan than a casino could offer.
MGM sold its Bridgeport plan in part by disdaining the corporate welfare model. No subsidies of any kind were in the ask, only a private developer working in partnership with an international casino operator for the betterment of the local economy.
No one believed MGM was in town to act in the public good, but it’s an effective sales pitch. A casino would bring money to the state, while a plan like New Haven’s would only cost money.
But it’s not that simple. Even if a casino would be an overall economic plus, which is far from a sure thing, investments in infrastructure, transit and coastal resiliency are preparing the state for the next economy. All those projects mean jobs, just like casinos, but jobs that serve the state and its future.
A third casino may be inevitable, but it will never be anything more than a sideshow. It’s not as exciting as slot machines, but investing in our cities in the real key to the state’s economic future, and should be the focus of the state’s strategy.
Hugh Bailey is editorial page editor of the Connecticut Post and New Haven Register. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.