Project could turn region into a ‘destination,’ officials say

January 18, 2017

The Day

Southeastern Connecticut, long the state’s tourism mecca, could become something much more if the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority’s plan to redevelop the former Norwich Hospital property materializes.
It could become a “destination.”

Such is the promise of the project, which, though still in a conceptual stage, had state and local officials praising the Mohegans’ vision Tuesday during a news conference at Mohegan Sun.
Renderings unveiled for the first time depicted the layout of features of the proposal that had been outlined days earlier: a theme park, sports and entertainment venues, hotels, senior housing, timeshares and a marina.

Nothing’s cast in stone, said Kevin Brown, the Mohegan tribal chairman who also heads the gaming authority’s management board. “It may end up including something that hasn’t even occurred to us,” he said. “But the tourism mix is going to be a big part of it.”

The gaming authority has pledged to deliver a project that tips the scales in the $200 million to $600 million range, with third-party developers expected to bid on various phases of it. The process of pitching everything could take up to 18 months, Brown said.

It could be two years before a shovel is in the ground and as many as five years before anything is in place.

“Tourism’s a huge aspect of this,” said state Sen. Paul Formica, the East Lyme Republican who founded the legislature’s tourism caucus. “You come into this region on Interstate 95, it’s the gateway to ‘Mystic Coast and Country’ … and Preston. The possibilities are endless.”

While the state needs to attract investment in biotechnology and manufacturing, there’s no denying tourism’s importance, particularly to this region, Formica said.

“It’s the power of having two of the largest casinos in the world in your backyard,” he said, referring to Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy noted that the state has invested more than $9 million in the hospital property over the years and is committed to bonding another $10 million to cover environmental cleanup costs. Under Malloy, Connecticut also has invested heavily in tourism promotion in recent years.

“This part of the state has natural attributes,” the governor said, standing at a podium in a Sky Tower suite at the casino. “We also have manmade attributes — we’re in one right now. It’s all interconnected.”
Tony Sheridan, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, spoke about the project’s potential impact in a phone interview after the news conference, which he did not attend.

“It truly makes us a major destination, not just in Connecticut but quite frankly all of southern New England,” he said. “A major ripple effect will be felt throughout the economy, for construction people, for improving the housing market. More people will be brought into the region.”

He suggested that the Mohegans are the only entity in the region that could pull it off.

“They have the technical know-how, the ability to do the market research that’s necessary to find out what’s feasible and what’s not feasible,” Sheridan said. “Also, they’re not afraid to take a risk. … It’s a small risk.”

The Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, which owns Foxwoods, acknowledged the Mohegans’ plan to redevelop the Preston site.

“We extend our congratulations to the Mohegans on their exciting news,” Lori Potter, a Mashantucket spokeswoman, said in a statement. “Both Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegans are focused on diversifying our resorts in ways that strengthen southeastern Connecticut as a major tourism and entertainment destination in the face of expanding regional gaming competition.”

Brown fielded a question about the Mohegans’ ability to pursue a number of projects simultaneously. In Connecticut alone, the tribal gaming authority is considering building an $80 million conference center at Mohegan Sun while also pursuing, in a partnership with the Mashantuckets, a $200 million to $300 million casino project in the Hartford area.

He said the Preston project, like the others, would be pursued through the “capital-light” approach the tribe has taken in financing a number of its diversification efforts. The approach involves partnering with other entities.

“I don’t see this one failing,” he said.