Casino planning for airport should be transparent, not secret

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Inside the terminal at Bradley International Airport.

Secret backroom deals, it has been proved time and time again, may be good for the deal-makers, but they are terrible for taxpayers.

Yet, despite the debacle of the Hartford stadium dominating the news — a deal that was done in secret, with no public input — officials from the Connecticut Airport Authority, the town of Windsor Locks and MMCT (the joint venture of the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Tribes) spent much of the past year hatching a secret plan to transform Bradley International Airport into a mega-casino.

It would definitely have been a bad deal for taxpayers, and certainly for residents of Windsor Locks, as many said instantly in the hours and days since the secret plan was revealed.

It took the action of a hearing officer of the Freedom of Information Commission, in response to action initiated by MGM, for the Connecticut Airport Authority to reluctantly come clean about its plans. Within hours of them being made public, and given the understandably stunned reaction of residents that the plans were for a casino as large as any in Las Vegas, the executive director of the airport authority said publicly that this particular plan would not go forward at either of the proposed airport locations.

He added, however, that the agency “plans to continue its negotiations with MMCT.” And so the secrecy will apparently continue, unabated.

The first selectman of Windsor Locks said that same day that town officials “had no input into the plan.” That simply isn’t true, and just-released emails prove it isn’t true. Town officials did have input. Unfortunately, the residents of Windsor Locks did not. This flawed process was dominated by secrecy, closed-door meetings, an absence of public input and plans to skirt local regulatory reviews.

Windsor Locks town officials, elected and appointed, including the town assessor and town planner, were in communication with representatives of the airport authority, and material they provided was included, verbatim in at least two instances, in the proposal submitted to MMCT. It appears that other town officials were consulted as well.

This is no way to run a process if Connecticut is to have its first commercial casino.

The state legislature should insist on a full, open and transparent process that encourages competition rather than encouraging secret backroom deals. That is what MGM has been seeking since Day One — a fair opportunity to compete if Connecticut is truly interested in what would be its first commercial casino.

The public interest would be best served by affording world-class companies — MGM, the Mashantucket and Mohegan tribes, and others — an equal chance to compete and demonstrate what benefits would accrue to the host town and surrounding communities, along with Connecticut taxpayers. That is precisely what every state, with the lone exception of Connecticut, has done when a commercial casino has been contemplated.

That is what happened in Massachusetts, where the Mohegan Tribe competed, and that process has benefited local communities and taxpayers substantially. Under the plan hatched by the airport authority and Windsor Locks, no such guarantee of benefits exist.

MGM has long valued Connecticut highly as a potential market. We still do. There’s no doubt that developers from all over North America would welcome an opportunity to compete as well, if the state’s process was fair, open and competitive. And there should always be a lot of public input. That type of process will guarantee the best outcome for Connecticut and local towns in terms of investment, jobs created and revenue generated.

Unlike with the Hartford baseball stadium, the legislature does not need to wait until next April to play ball. When they reconvene in January, legislators can create a fair, open, transparent and competitive process that includes the public in this important decision.

Alan M. Feldman is Executive Vice President of global government and industry affairs at MGM Resorts International.

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