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Conn. tribes seek to expand in Mass.

Nov 13, 2007 6:57 AM

The Connecticut Indian tribe that operates the Foxwoods casino and its Las Vegas partner are actively scouring Massachusetts for casino locations, part of a race between two of Connecticut’s tribes to protect their share of the New England gambling market.

The Mashantucket Pequot and MGM Mirage, which operates the Bellagio and MGM Grand among other resorts in Las Vegas and other casinos around the country, have so far shopped for a site in the Boston area and in Western Massachusetts.

Foxwoods officials spent a good portion of the past two months in talks with operators of Wonderland Greyhound Park in Revere, but the talks fizzled, according to a report in the Boston Globe.

An executive from MGM Mirage, meanwhile, has looked at a 1,600-acre tract in the Central Massachusetts town of Warren.

Another tribe, the Mohegan, which operates Mohegan Sun, was the first Connecticut tribe to plant a flag in Massachusetts with a proposed site on 150 acres in Palmer.

The competing tribes’ interest in bidding for gaming licenses under Governor Deval Patrick’s plan to introduce resort-casinos demonstrates how they are seeking to use their riches to expand beyond Connecticut’s borders, after enjoying a lock on New England casino gambling for more than a decade.

Under Patrick’s proposal, the state would auction off three licenses, one each in metropolitan Boston, Southeastern Massachusetts, and Western Massachusetts.

The Pequot formed a partnership with MGM Mirage last year to seek development possibilities worldwide. Scott Snow, executive vice president of MGM Mirage, recently toured the Warren location, according to the current property owners.

The Warren site, adjacent to the intersection of Interstates 90 and 84, is less than 10 miles from the area in Palmer where the Mohegan tribe wants to build.

"We are interested in Massachusetts," Alan Feldman, MGM’s senior vice president of public affairs, told the Boston Globe, adding that any discussions are preliminary and would depend on what the final legislation, which the Legislature is not expected to take up until next year, looks like. "There’s interest on the part of everyone in the industry. We’ll see where it all leads."

MGM, the largest landowner on Las Vegas Boulevard, is one of the dominant casino developers in the world, operating several resorts in Las Vegas and casinos in Detroit, Atlantic City, and Biloxi, Mississippi.

Foxwoods representatives have also engaged in talks with the owners of Wonderland Greyhound Park, but no agreement was reached and both sides have been seeking other deals, according to sources who have been briefed on the status of the negotiations. Arthur Henick, a Pequot spokesman, confirmed the tribe’s interest in Massachusetts but declined any further comment.

Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods opened in the 1990s and have expanded several times. Enriched by the extraordinary success at those resorts, they are not only looking for expansion opportunities in Massachusetts, with its large, untapped market, but also around the country.

The Pequot tribe is a major investment partner in a resort-casino proposed in Kansas and have partnered with another tribe to build a $300 million casino near San Diego. It has also been looking at developing in the Virgin Islands.

The Mohegan tribe is working on casino deals with the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin and Cowlitz Indian Tribe of Washington state.

Both tribes have also been competing in Pennsylvania, which passed a law in 2004 allowing up to 14 casinos. The Mohegan tribe acquired Pocono Downs Raceway, renamed it Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, and is building a 2,500-slot facility next to the track. The Pequot tribe won the prized license to build one of two casinos in Philadelphia, beating out a host of established gaming companies to build a $560 million complex on the Delaware River.

In pushing Patrick’s plan, administration officials have argued that Massachusetts residents are spending an estimated $900 million annually in the Connecticut casinos, which through taxes gives that state’s treasury about $120 million.

Under Patrick’s proposal, which is facing stiff opposition from several key legislators, the Bay State would use a number of criteria in awarding the licenses, but special preference would be given to federally recognized tribes based in Massachusetts. Currently two tribes have announced plans to seek licenses in Massachusetts: the Mashpee Wampanoag and the Aquinnah Wampanoag.