In a split vote on Tuesday, the Windsor Locks selectmen rejected a proposal by the Connecticut Airport Authority to build a casino lite at Bradley International Airport to compete with a planned mega-casino in Springfield.
This is great news for many reasons. It's a triumph of home rule over state hegemony. Travelers and gamblers will not be at cross-purposes. A shared airport (Hartford-Springfield) will not be used to undermine one of the sharers. The fallacy that we can gamble our way out of debt is being put to bed. Finally, the narrative of gambling in Connecticut has reached the point of absurdity.
Since the 17th century, we the Puritan people of Connecticut have deemed ourselves too morally righteous to follow the path of Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Low-stakes gambling was OK, for example church basement bingo, off-track betting and frog racing. But high-stakes gambling was not.
Then came the euphemism "tribal gaming." In our midst are federally recognized sovereign "nations" smaller than the rural towns they're embedded in.
One thing led to another. In Ledyard, the Mashantucket Pequots built a warehouse-sized bingo hall on the eastern edge of Cedar Swamp. By the 1990s, Foxwoods Resort Casino had risen Oz-like from the plains, an Emerald City financed by overseas gambling interests and linked to us by the yellow brick road of Route 2.
Gamblers within a day's drive satiated their desires. The tribe grew wealthy. The Land of Steady Habits became a world famous gambling resort. Our treasury skimmed the cream of slot-machine profits. Our economy became addicted to something our culture wouldn't legalize.
Meanwhile, on the west bank of the Thames River in Uncasville, the Mohegan tribe was following the Pequot path. Their casino jutted skyward like a colossal glass crystal. Two casino destinations, one on each side of the river, were competing like two super-sized pharmacies on opposite sides of the street. After two good decades, however, the market became saturated and the financial success of both operations began plunging.
Then came Massachusetts. After years of waffling, the commonwealth decided to site a mega-casino in Springfield, its third largest city, one desperately in need of revenue. The fall 2018 scheduled opening for its $800 million MGM extravaganza is only three years away.
Yikes! said the two tribes, which foresaw dollars from Greater Hartford and the I-91 corridor heading upriver to Springfield, rather than over the rougher terrain to Uncasville and Ledyard. The enemy of an enemy had become a friend.
Yikes! said Connecticut. Its treasury foresaw gamblers driving north over the state line to spend money, a scene comparable to that of Bay State drinkers driving over the New Hampshire state line to liquor superstores. So it was that two Indian nations and one state united to disunite this part of the United States. For this to happen, some non-reservation land convenient to I-91 and I-84 would have to be found.
Smelling money, a number of private sites were quickly tendered: a shuttered and shrub-covered movie theater complex in East Hartford, another in East Windsor and an underused shopping mall in Enfield. A search in Hartford is underway.
But the site that generated the most buzz so far was the now-rejected one at Bradley International Airport. The plan was to wedge a new casino directly into projects already in the works. This made sense from a short-term tactical point of view: It's near Springfield, there's plenty of flat, well-drained space, traffic issues are minimal and Connecticut could keep the money and jobs here.
But thankfully, the selectmen stood firm against it, noting the moral hypocrisy of the state's work with an uneasy tribal alliance to pick the pockets of Greater Hartford residents and wage war on a neighbor over dollars the vice squad would have seized just a few decades ago.
May this be the tipping point toward a saner future.