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Casinos crucial to Connecticut's economy, experts say 6-14-07

By JOHN CHRISTOFFERSEN
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - Connecticut's two Indian casinos have played a vital role in the state's economy, creating thousands of jobs and pumping billions into state coffers since they opened more than a decade ago, experts said Thursday at the first Native American economic summit.

But growing competition expected from surrounding states and other issues pose challenges to sustaining that success.

“The growth has been nothing short of phenomenal over the past 15 years,” said Jeff Blodgett, vice president of research of Connecticut Economic Resource Center. “The gaming industry is now an integral part of our economy.”

Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino combined have hired more than 20,000 employees and paid $4.2 billion to the state from slot revenue since they opened in 1996 and 1992 respectively, Blodgett said. Expansions by both casinos will add nearly 3,500 jobs, he said.

The casinos are now among the largest employers in the state and account for about 13 percent of job growth in Connecticut since 1992, Blodgett said.

Despite the rapid growth, the tribes are still in the early stages of what could be explosive economic development, said Michael Thomas, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequots, which operates Foxwoods. He said his tribe could expand into other types of tourism, such as theme parks, if the gaming market becomes saturated.

“Anyone who thinks we're nearly done really doesn't understand the opportunities in front of the tribe,” Thomas said in an interview after the summit.

The expansions are designed to keep Connecticut's casinos competitive as surrounding states weigh opening their own gaming operations.

The Connecticut tribes, which are federally recognized, are among many around the country finally finding success after centuries of poverty and mistreatment, said Joseph Kalt, co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. Self-government and sovereignty are key reasons for the newfound prosperity, he said.

The summit, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, was designed to raise awareness of the importance of the casinos to Connecticut's economy.

Besides more competition, the casinos face challenges such as growing traffic congestion and a lack of affordable housing in the region, officials said.

Thomas said the state should provide more funding to promote tourism. Rich Harris, spokesman for Gov. M. Jodi Rell, said the governor recognizes the importance of tourism but must balance that with numerous competing needs such as education and transportation.

While the summit largely focused on the positive economic effects of the casinos, Marvin Steinberg, executive director of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, said research shows that increasing gambling opportunities leads to an increase in problem gambling. He said the state should set aside some of the money it receives from the casinos for gambling treatment, though he noted that some lottery funds are used for gambling treatment and the tribes have financially supported the council.

Steinberg also said a study of problem gambling has been delayed.
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