Bridgeport’s Big Gamble

I. The East End
When he first heard about the casino, Dr. Charlie Stallworth, a Connecticut state representative and the pastor of East End Baptist Tabernacle Church in Bridgeport, was skeptical. He didn’t think the developer, MGM Resorts International, was serious about the project, and he didn’t like the advertising campaign they were running. “Maybe I’m not the brightest guy in the room,” he remembers thinking, “but don’t try and manipulate me.” So, last September, when Stallworth heard about a press conference and groundbreaking ceremony in a vacant lot on the waterfront, he stayed away: “How are you going to have a groundbreaking for something that’s illegal to build?”

A few construction workers wore hard hats for the cameras, but the event that morning wasn’t really a groundbreaking. There were no shovels. Instead, standing in a tent beside artists’ depictions of a glitzy complex with yachts parked out front, Jim Murren, MGM’s president and CEO and a Bridgeport native, said construction could start on a $675-million resort and casino as soon as the state passed a bill to make it legal. “The idea of being able to bring thousands of jobs, hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, to a city where I was born that needs this so desperately is very rewarding for me,” he said.

The site MGM had chosen was in the East End neighborhood, three blocks from Stallworth’s church: a patch of concrete on an old industrial channel in Bridgeport Harbor. This spot was now the center of a battle over where—and whether—Connecticut would open its first casino off a Native American reservation. MGM was already on track to spend more than $4.7 million on lobbying and associated costs within 18 months. Only recently, the gambling titan had sued Connecticut, attempting to block a similar proposal from the state’s two federally recognized Native American tribes, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and the Mohegan Tribe (both of which already operate casinos on their reservations). Now, it was launching a charm offensive: community meetings, union rallies, donations to nonprofits and scholarship funds, talks at Rotary clubs, web and TV advertising, and glossy brochures mailed to homes in Bridgeport and New Haven. “Support 7,000 total jobs,” one brochure said, “at no cost to taxpayers.” The state’s two largest cities were each promised something. Bridgeport would get $8 million a year for hosting the casino, MGM promised. New Haven would get a jobs-training center. And Connecticut would get $50 million up front in licensing fees before the first card was dealt.

Back in September, Stallworth had his doubts about the casino. But he knew his city was struggling. “Bridgeport has been stereotyped as that place where bad things happen,” he said. “We have to change that.” Once a proud producer of everything from sewing machines and luxury cars to bayonets and rifles, Bridgeport flourished during World War II but began losing jobs and residents soon after.

Deindustrialization in the ‘70s and ‘80s hit the city hard. Crack, crime, and suburban flight made things worse. By 1990, Bridgeport’s murder rate was the highest in New England. Its budget was deep in the red. According to Stallworth, Bridgeport still hasn’t fully recovered. “Just to ride through the neighborhood, you see trash, you see sidewalks broken,” he said. “If I were sixteen, I don’t know if that would motivate me to try to push forward in my life.”

Stallworth met with MGM executives at his church early this year to hear their pitch. The jobs and revenue projections they quoted got his attention. “Bridgeport has not had an economic boost, or a jobs boost, since who knows when,” he said. And he appreciated that their plans included some family-friendly entertainment options, like a theater and a boardwalk mall. By spring, he concluded that MGM Bridgeport was the city’s best chance for a rebound.

Reverend Christopher Leighton thought differently. Leighton, the priest at St. Mark’s, an Episcopal church about two blocks from Dr. Stallworth’s church, opposed the casino from the start. His grandfather, a well-to-do accountant, lost everything to illicit gambling and left his son, Leighton’s father, in crushing debt. Leighton’s father took out his bitterness on his children. “I remember being beaten by my father for nothing,” the priest told me. “It’s a drama I wish I never had to go through.” A grandfather himself now, Leighton helps run a summer bible school for East End kids. “I don’t want to see the kids we’re trying to help get sucked into a life that could destroy them,” he said.

Stallworth’s support for the casino, Leighton said, probably stems from his thinking as an elected official, pursuing Bridgeport’s economic interests rather than following his heart as a preacher. “I’ve heard people say, who are in support of it, ‘You can’t legislate morality,’ Leighton said. “It’s like, wait a minute, we do that all the time: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”

But Stallworth said he feels no tension between politics and faith on this issue. “I’m in the same place as a pastor, as a person, as a politician,” he said. “I support it. I have stood in my church and said, ‘I’m looking forward for it to come.’ I hope it comes.”

By March, the two East End pastors were manning opposite sides of the barricades. Stallworth signed on as a sponsor of House Bill 5305, which would set up a bidding process for a new casino with requirements roughly tracking MGM’s proposal. Leighton, meanwhile, joined the Connecticut Coalition Against Casino Expansion (CACE) and testified against the bill. “Gambling may be entertaining for some,” he said at a legislative hearing, “but for many whose stories are too shameful to tell, gambling causes casualties.”
Leighton told me opposing the casino can feel isolating. His impression is that the overwhelming majority of Bridgeport residents want it. (In a poll of registered Bridgeport voters MGM commissioned last fall, 74 percent said they were in favor.) Michele Mudrick, one of the coalition’s founders, said CACE is outmatched financially as well. “It’s like a David and Goliath fight we have here,” Mudrick told me in April. “We have $800 in the bank[…] and they’re literally spending hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

In May, as the 2018 legislative session closed, Stallworth’s bill passed the Connecticut House of Representatives. Four days later, short on votes, the bill’s sponsors in the Senate withdrew it, promising to come back stronger in 2019. In another round of direct-mail flyers later that month, MGM vowed to continue the fight. “With support from people like you,” the flyer said, “we are closer than ever” to victory. Since then, the battlefield has gone quiet. But both sides are preparing for the bill’s return.

II. Uncasville

On the winding route to Mohegan Sun, one of two casinos that tower over the oak and hickory forests of southeastern Connecticut, the snow is falling heavier now and sticking. It’s a Wednesday night in March, and I’ve taken a wrong turn onto a road the plows haven’t reached. Cars move slowly, following each other’s tire-tracks. Others have given up, or drifted too far onto the shoulder; they wait in the darkness, hazard lights blinking. It’s supposed to snow like this until morning.

It’s warm inside the casino, where there are no windows to gauge the weather outside. The gambling floor is vast, spanning more than 300,000 square feet. In one section, simulated stars dot the ceiling. In another, animatronic wolves turn their heads as if scanning for prey. The flashing lights on slot machines—old ones, squat with metal handles, and new ones shaped like giant smartphones—blur in the cigarette smoke and artificial waterfall mist.

Melissa, who declined to give her last name, got off work about an hour ago. She’s slouched in her seat, watching a video interlude on a “Sex and the City” slot machine. Later tonight, she’ll brave the roads home to North Stonington, where her two kids are waiting. I ask why she’s here. “Because I work at the other one,” she responds. “I can’t gamble there.”

“I’ve heard people say, who are in support of it, ‘You can’t legislate morality,’ Leighton said. “It’s like, wait a minute, we do that all the time: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”

The other one is Foxwoods Resort Casino, 10 miles away on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation. When it opened in 1992, Foxwoods was the only casino in New England; within a few years, it was the world’s largest. The Mohegans—relatives and onetime enemies of the Mashantucket Pequots—received federal recognition as a tribe in 1994, and opened Mohegan Sun here in Uncasville two years later. For the next decade, this corner of Connecticut attracted gamblers from all over the East Coast. Back then, an old-timer at the penny slots told me, there was a line behind every machine.

Slot machines are illegal in Connecticut. But on tribal lands, state gambling restrictions, like indoor smoking laws, apply differently. Back in the ‘90s, the state promised the tribes a monopoly on slots; in return, the tribes would pay Connecticut 25 percent of their slot-machine winnings. The state’s most profitable year was 2006—payments for that year totaled $430 million. Then came the financial crisis. By 2012, Foxwoods was $2.3 billion in debt. The Mohegans owed $1.6 billion. And they were encircled by competitors: New casinos had popped up in Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, and Maine.

With more regional rivals, Connecticut’s casinos have since shrunk their gambling floors and expanded into tamer forms of entertainment: an outlet mall, an expo center, a 33-story zip-line, a WNBA team. As of late 2016, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun employed 43 percent fewer people than in 2006. The two casinos still accounted for over 13,000 jobs, and operated more than 7,000 slot machines. But last year, those machines won the state just $270 million.

Dr. Clyde Barrow, a University of Texas economist who consults for the tribes, told me the number of casinos in the Northeast has exploded since 2006—from 12 to nearly 70. And more are coming. MGM Springfield, a billion-dollar gambling resort, opened in Massachusetts last month. Wynn is building a casino near Boston. Over the summer, MGM bought a century-old racetrack and slot parlor in Yonkers, New York, which industry observers expect will expand dramatically. To compete, the Connecticut tribes plan to construct a “satellite” casino in East Windsor, Connecticut—just 17 miles from Springfield. The idea, which won the legislature’s approval in 2016, is to intercept gamblers heading north for the border.

According to MGM, a casino in Bridgeport will do the same things, but better, potentially earning Connecticut more than Foxwoods and Mohegan combined. Bridgeport is closer to major population hubs like New York. But a casino there would break Connecticut’s compact with the tribes and throw the future of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun into doubt.

Melissa believes workers like her will suffer no matter what happens. “The more casinos you have,” she said, “the worse it is for us.” She’s been at Foxwoods for 17 years, off and on, and remembers the downturn when Twin River Casino opened an hour away in Rhode Island. “There’ll be layoffs,” she predicted.

Dr. Barrow’s data support Melissa’s fears. “There’s no doubt,” he said, “that if you open a third casino in Connecticut, some of its revenues will be cannibalized” from Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. In a 2015 study, Dr. Barrow’s consulting firm predicted that increased competition could cost the two casinos as many as 5,800 jobs by 2019. The only downturn approaching that scale to date was during the Great Recession. Hundreds of workers and tribal members lost their livelihoods then. In 2010, still insolvent after laying off eight hundred employees, the Pequots stopped paying stipends to tribal members, forcing some families to rely on a communal food bank. (In the boom years, those annual stipends had exceeded $100,000 for each adult.)

Chuck Bunnell, the Mohegan Tribe’s chief of staff, told me he thinks MGM Bridgeport will never materialize. “Obviously, let’s hope it doesn’t,” he said. “But, if we’re being honest with each other, we have to accept that that would cause layoffs and be devastating for this region of the state.” And adjusting for competition from MGM Springfield is “inevitable,” Bunnell said. The tribes will try to keep downsized workers employed until the East Windsor casino opens—2020 at the earliest—so they can transfer there, he said. Although most employees aren’t members of the tribe, Bunnell said, the Mohegans “consider their employees part of their extended family.”

But transferring to East Windsor, halfway across the state, isn’t an option for Melissa. “I have thought about it,” she said, “but I’m divorced and I have two kids. The travel would take too big of a toll.”

III. Barnum Avenue

Nick Roussas, the owner of Frankie’s Diner in Bridgeport, started out bussing tables at the age of 9. By 12 he was cooking burgers and fries on the line. Now, at 41, Roussas is the president of the neighborhood redevelopment zone, a marshal for the Juneteenth parade, and a board member for six nonprofits. He’s also a near-daily presence at the diner, where he works at least 50 hours a week.

Roussas has three rules for conversations with customers: “You don’t take sides on religion, politics, or baseball.” He bends two of them. It’s no secret that Roussas is a die-hard Yankees fan. He’s taken a side in the casino debate, too. “Why can’t we have something like the Yankees here in Bridgeport?” he asked me. “That’s what I think MGM can do for us.”

Growing up around Barnum Avenue, Roussas witnessed Bridgeport’s decline first-hand. “This neighborhood used to be a lot nicer,” he said. “You had G.E. You had Remington Arms. Columbia Records was here. Singer Sewing Machines. Frisbee Pies.” Customers at Frankie’s still reminisce about a time when you could quit a good job in the morning and get a new one by lunchtime. When the factories closed, things changed. “A lot of people started selling their houses,” Roussas recalled. “People started buying the houses very cheap, renting them out.” Slumlords and renters didn’t keep up the buildings. The city didn’t keep up the streets. A halfway house moved in near the diner. “If this neighborhood had stayed stable,” he said, “if people owned their homes, maybe that wouldn’t have happened.”

It’s no secret that Roussas is a die-hard Yankees fan. He’s taken a side in the casino debate, too. “Why can’t we have something like the Yankees here in Bridgeport?” he asked me. “That’s what I think MGM can do for us.”

The state has neglected Bridgeport, said Peter Carroll, the president of the county’s Building Trades Union, who grew up here, too. “In New Haven, they have Yale, and Hartford’s the capital,” he said. “Stamford has all the spill-over from New York City. But Bridgeport always seems to be the stepchild.” The contribution MGM would make to the local economy, Carroll said, is “desperately needed.”

Michele Mudrick of CACE agrees that Bridgeport needs jobs. But the city and state need to get creative about promoting these goals, she said. “Casinos are made for people to lose their money, and making people poor is not a good economic development tool.”

Karen DelVecchio, executive vice president of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, said MGM’s investment is too big to pass up. “The fact is, there are not a lot of entities that can come in and invest $675 million,” she told me. “If there were another business that could do that, we would be thrilled to hear about it.”

Last October, Bridgeport and New Haven submitted a joint bid to host Amazon’s second corporate headquarters. “Bridgehaven” was cut in the first round. Short of Amazon—which says it will invest $5 billion in its next home and hire 50,000 employees making over $100,000 a year—a casino is the city’s best shot, DelVecchio said.

Roussas knows the casino won’t solve all of Bridgeport’s problems. He understands it’s designed to take people’s money. But he hopes the promised jobs will trigger a chain reaction. Bridgeporters will go back to work. They’ll buy houses instead of renting. They’ll raise their kids here, sending them to schools improved and beautified with casino money. They’ll have what Roussas calls “pride of ownership.” They’ll be happier.

“That’s all it takes—one thing like this to spark things up,” Roussas said. “That’s what we’re looking for.”

IV. Waterbury

Thirty miles north on Highway 8, in Waterbury, another former factory town, Scott Nelson thinks a casino will affect his city, too. Nelson is the director of problem gambling services for Midwestern Connecticut Council of Alcoholism, an addiction treatment center here.

“If you’re within a fifty-five-mile radius of a casino,” Nelson told me, “your chances of developing a gambling issue go up.” In a 1999 report to Congress, the National Gambling Impact Study Commission cited evidence that problem and pathological gambling were twice as prevalent within fifty miles of a casino. Recent studies have found a similar correlation. Nelson explains this in terms of access. “The more accessible gambling is, the more people tend to participate in it,” he said. “And once you are in that environment, certain risk factors have the opportunity to take hold.”

Right now, lottery scratchers are the biggest problem for Nelson’s gambling clients. Fantasy sports betting is growing. If a casino opened in Bridgeport—fifty-five minutes away by train or thirty minutes by car—Nelson would anticipate more clients with slot-machine addictions. But he wouldn’t expect them right away. “Nobody goes to the casino for the first time, loses more than they intended, and then immediately walks in the door to see us,” he said. “There’s a pattern of problems over months, years—decades in some cases—before they’re able to get through the door to see us.”

Melodie Keen, the director of outpatient services at Connecticut Renaissance, a behavioral therapy center in Norwalk, agreed. “By the time I see people,” she said, “they’ve lost everything.”

If MGM Bridgeport opens, Nelson believes the patients at his clinic will be especially vulnerable. Some have criminal records. Many are people of color. Few are affluent. All these factors put them at a higher risk for gambling addiction, he said. Research bears out Nelson’s concern. According to a paper by Dr. Timothy Fong of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program, lower socioeconomic status correlates with more severe gambling problems, and African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, and American Indians are all overrepresented among pathological gamblers—as are individuals with a history of substance abuse.

“But it can happen to anyone,” said Keen. Her Norwalk clients include high rollers ferried to casinos in private jets or limos and given complimentary suites once they arrive.

Representative Juan Candelaria of New Haven, who co-sponsored the casino bill last session, said he was sympathetic to concerns about gambling problems but that it’s ultimately a question of individual autonomy. “I mean, no one is obligated to gamble,” he told me.

“We make that choice,” Rep. Candelaria added. “And yes, opening up the casino opens up, probably, the ability for the individuals to go and gamble, but at the end of the day, it’s the individual’s choice.”
Many Americans feel that way, said Nelson, the Waterbury clinician. In a recent poll, 51 percent of respondents named “moral weakness” as a likely cause of gambling addiction. But the idea that gambling addiction involves more of a choice—and thus more of a personal failing—than drug addiction is false, Nelson said. “I always think about it this way,” he said. “If somebody with a gambling addiction could bottle up that feeling they get from sitting at the card table, put it into a syringe, and inject it into their arms so they didn’t have to leave the house to go to the table, they would do that.”

Some MGM backers have argued that the potential harm to a small number of individuals with gambling addictions shouldn’t stop Bridgeport and Connecticut from collecting the revenue they need. “I talk to a lot of people who deal with a lot of things,” Stallworth, the pastor, told me, “and I think I’ve had one person who said to me, you know, ‘I have a gambling problem.’”

Meanwhile, Rep. Candelaria said, casinos work for everyone else. “That revenue is creating not only jobs,” Rep. Candelaria said, but also “going to different areas, where people will benefit at the end of the day.”

Nelson compared this framing to the arguments drug manufacturers have advanced to avoid liability for fueling the opiate epidemic. “‘We developed this medicine in good faith, and if some people misused it and it led them to heroin, that’s not our problem’,” he said. While gambling addiction doesn’t lead to overdoses, it can be lethal. As many as one in five compulsive gamblers—a higher rate than any other addiction—attempt suicide, according to statistics from the National Council on Problem Gambling.
According to Dr. Earl Grinols, an economist at Baylor University who has studied casinos’ social costs, gambling addiction will likely claim more victims if Bridgeport gets its casino. “Some of them will commit suicide,” he said. “Some of them will engage in crime, like embezzlement. There’s no doubt it’s going to cause those things. The question is, is that at a level that’s acceptable to the state of Connecticut?”

But where casinos are concerned, Nelson suggested, Connecticut may have passed the point of coolly weighing risks and benefits. The state hit a kind of jackpot once before, winning millions in revenue from Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. Now, as competition increases and money gets tighter, lawmakers want to try their luck again.

A potent psychological factor in gambling addiction, Nelson said, is “the fantasy of gambling creating a life-changing event.” It’s unique to gambling, and it’s one reason casinos can be so compelling—both for individual gamblers and for the cities and states that host casinos. “Nobody with an alcohol addiction can pick up a beer and think to themselves, ‘If I drink this next beer, my life can be drastically changed,’” he said. But gamblers can dream. So can Bridgeport.

– Steven Lance graduated from Yale Law School in 2018.

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