EAST WINDSOR — Leaders of Connecticut's two federally recognized Indian tribes tried to make it clear Monday they still intend to build a jointly owned casino near the border with Massachusetts despite delays in federal approvals.
Cheers erupted from a crowd of more than 100 onlookers — including parents with children in tow — as a yellow excavator bit a chunk from the old Showcase Cinemas in East Windsor. It was the first step in a six-week effort to demolish the building and ultimately clear the site for the planned 200,000-square foot gambling and entertainment venue.
"We've been through too much already together to give up. And we're not going to," said Mohegan Tribal Chairman Kevin Brown.
While there's no set date for a casino to open, Brown and Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Council, both said they hope it will be "inside of two years."
The goal is to compete with the new MGM Resorts casino that's scheduled to open this fall, about 15 miles north along I-91 in Springfield, Massachusetts, and protect jobs at the tribes' Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino in southeastern Connecticut.
The tribes first joined forces in 2015 and formed the private venture MMCT with the intent of opening the border casino before MGM opened its new $950 million facility in Massachusetts. However, the project has taken longer than expected, for various reasons.
Most recently, the U.S. Department of Interior failed to act on revenue sharing agreements between Connecticut and the tribes, one of the final steps in the approval process. The state and tribes recently sued the department in federal court, seeking a ruling that the agreements should now be considered approved because the agency did not act on them.
Brown and Butler said they remain confident the matter will be sorted out, possibly by late spring or early summer.
"The law is very, very clearly on our side," Butler said. "There's been much more complicated situations that have gone through this and have been approved."
The delay has given hope to lawmakers representing Bridgeport and other cities that prefer an open bidding process for the first casino on non-tribal land in Connecticut. MGM, which has challenged the state's decision to allow the tribes to build in East Windsor, has hired a fleet of lobbying firms this session to push legislation that would nix the General Assembly's approval last year of the tribal casino and create the new, open process.
MGM has said it wants to build a casino and entertainment complex in Bridgeport.
Brown called the push for new legislation "quite offensive," considering the tribes have worked with lawmakers for three years. But he said most lawmakers still support the East Windsor casino concept.
"We're not concerned about it. We know the state's been with us and will continue to be with us despite all the airplay it's getting right now," he said. "The state has been a great partner."
On Monday, the MGM dismissed the tribes' demolition ceremony as offering false promises to a region that has learned "the hard way that demolition does not equal construction."
"The MMCT is no closer to legal approvals they require, and no closer to producing a realistic construction schedule than they were a year ago when they said construction would be completed in 2018," said Uri Clinton, senior vice president and legal counsel for MGM Resorts. "If ever there was a textbook example of there's less-here-than-meets-the-eye, this is it."