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Boutique Casino In Hartford Was On The Table Before Senate Vote, Unclear If Proposal Will Return

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Boutique Casino In Hartford Was On The Table Before Senate Vote, Unclear If Proposal Will Return

The city came close to landing a "boutique casino" as part of a casino expansion bill approved by the state Senate this week but opposition just before the vote scuttled the plans, state legislators confirmed.

The gambling venue would have been outfitted and operated by the state's two casino operators, the Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegans, as part of their proposal to establish a "satellite" gambling venue in East Windsor. The tribes' expansion to the Hartford area is the focus of the Senate bill.

The location of a downtown Hartford casino hadn't been determined but it would have been in another venue such as the XL Center, the convention center or a hotel. The mix of slot machines and table games also hadn't been decided.

Sen. John W. Fonfara, a Hartford Democrat, said the city casino would have been far smaller than what is envisioned for East Windsor, where plans call for 2,000 slot machines and 50 to 150 table games. Some of the revenue derived from the Hartford casino could have gone toward a renovation plan for the XL Center, Fonfara said.

"It was not envisioned to be a standalone destination, rather a small, yet sophisticated, venue to enhance the entertainment experience at the XL Center, theaters, restaurants, and clubs in downtown Hartford, while providing an opportunity to reduce the state's investment to renovate the XL Center," Fonfara said.

The plan had the backing of Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, who had not been an ardent supporter of bringing casino gambling to the city. The tribes considered Hartford before settling on East Windsor and the site of a long-abandoned movie theater complex off I-91.

"I've never really been bitten by the casino bug, and I've never been a fan of putting a big box of slot machines in Hartford," Bronin said. "The proposal to put a small, higher-end gaming boutique in an existing entertainment venue or hotel could present a very different kind of opportunity."

Bronin, who shared the plans with city council members, said he preferred a venue that focused more on table games than slots. But he said the plan would have been subject to hearings and local approvals.

Casino expansion is one of the most controversial issues in the General Assembly this session. It has been focused on blunting the competitive threat posed by a new, $950 million casino and entertainment complex now under construction by MGM Resorts International in Springfield.

The issue is a sensitive one for state lawmakers because of the state's precarious financial position. The state reaps 25 percent of slot revenue from the state's two casinos — Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun — each month. The money coming to state coffers is expected to drop dramatically once Springfield opens next fall from $267 million this year.

Fonfara said the idea for the boutique casino in Hartford came out of a meeting about two weeks ago with the tribes, which operate Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun.

Fonfara has been a supporter of another approach to casino expansion also being debated in the legislature: competitive bidding that would open up casino expansion to more potential operators in addition to the tribes.

But early this month, Fonfara said publicly that the Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegans might gain more traction for their plans in East Windsor if they made a commitment to the XL Center and Hartford.

Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun have taken a big bite out of the XL Center's concert business. At one time, the Hartford arena booked 12-14 major concerts a year, a number that has now dwindled to 3 or 4. In addition, Mohegan Sun is now building a convention center that stands to put considerable pressure on Hartford's convention center.

On top of that, there are growing worries that conventioneers and other visitors might be drawn to the East Windsor casino, bypassing city restaurants and attractions. A Hartford venue theoretically might counteract that, providing a gambling option in the city.

Fonfara said chances looked promising that the Hartford venue might be included in the bill. Fonfara said he would have switched his support to the Senate bill, but just before the vote opposition among some Senate Republicans surfaced, threatening the entire bill.

Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said in an interview that the boutique casino strayed too far from the intent of the bill. The bill, she said, was focused on a defensive move to preserve jobs and the funds the state receives each month from slot revenue at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.

"In the eleventh hour, everyone wants a slice of the apple," Somers said. "To me,this would lead to the creation of more boutique casinos. I don't want to see boutique casinos on every street corner of every town."

Somers said the Senate bill provideda $750,000 annual payment to Hartford and East Hartford as "distressed" cities, even though they do not border East Windsor.

The Hartford venue was not mentioned directly in the debate early Wednesday on the Senate bill. But both Fonfara and Sen. Douglas McCrory, a Democrat who also represents Hartford, said they were disappointed that Hartford was left out of it, given the competitive pressures. Fonfara and McCrory voted against the bill.

Andrew Doba, a spokesman for the tribes, declined to comment directly on Hartford, but issued a statement: "We're committed partners with the state of Connecticut and have explored many ideas over the last several months as we've looked to pass [the Senate bill]."

It was unclear Saturday if the Hartford casino plan could come back now that the Senate bill has been sent to the House. Democratic leaders in the House said the Senate bill as now written will not pass in their chamber. They have strongly suggested the tribes should pay a licensing fee that could run into the tens of millions of dollars, a provision not in the Senate bill.

And, at the same time, there is support in the House for the bill calling for competitive bidding.

Read more http://news.google.com/news/url?sa=t&fd=R&ct2=us&usg=AFQjCNEj7On3fx6UhBsXOlNVi82lVysenQ&clid=c3a7d30bb8a4878e06b80cf16b898331&ei=Q0sqWbBtkpSFAZephvgJ&url=http://www.courant.com/business/hc-hartford-boutique-casino-20170527-story.html

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