Lamont addresses economic issues in southeastern Connecticut during chamber breakfast

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Sten Spinella, The Day, New London, Conn.
·6 min read
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Apr. 7—Gov. Ned Lamont addressed the State Pier in New London, the state's new online gaming and sports betting agreement and the planned Coast Guard museum Wednesday during the Eastern Connecticut Chamber of Commerce's virtual business breakfast.

The business community expressed a positive overall outlook on the region's economy after an admittedly difficult year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Chamber President Tony Sheridan mentioned that businesses recently have been joining or rejoining the organization.

Mohegan Tribal Council Chairman James Gessner said after temporarily shutting down and later altering Mohegan Sun's casino operations, "We knew we had to do more for our community and the people of Connecticut."

"So we donated food to those in need, we delivered large amounts of (personal protective equipment) to local health providers, we helped service a major COVID-19 testing site, and earlier this year we began hosting a large scale vaccination clinic here on the reservation," he said.

Newly minted Foxwoods President and CEO Jason Guyot echoed Gessner's comments, saying the Mashantucket Pequot casino also has helped and must continue to help the community however it can. He announced an agreement with Coastal Gourmet and said a Mystic Market will be opening at Foxwoods this summer.

"As we look to the summer, we're very optimistic, both for the resort and the local economy as a whole. Our mega-vaccination clinic at Foxwoods in partnership with Hartford Healthcare has already vaccinated over 15,000 local residents," Guyot said. "The vaccine rollout throughout the state has people thinking about travel again, and there is pent-up demand for entertainment."

Guyot referenced the 10-year "landmark agreement" between the state and the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribal nations as another positive development. The state House and Senate must pass gaming expansion bills before the agreement takes effect.

Lamont said he's proud of the online gaming and sports betting deal, which he's been touting in public since late March.

"We've learned one thing over the course of this last miserable year with COVID: The world is increasingly moving virtual, and that's true with gaming as well," he said. "I'm looking forward to this being an incredibly successful venture for you, for southeast Connecticut and for the entire state."

Before Lamont spoke, Steven Coan, president and CEO of Mystic Aquarium, took a long view of the region's current economic climate, saying that it has made a robust recovery since the 2008 recession.

"Today as we emerge, hopefully, from the pandemic, this is a very strong region economically," Coan said. "We have a strong Electric Boat, we have a State Pier that's about to be completely redeveloped and made into a significant hub for ocean wind energy with the help of Ørsted and the state port authority. We have a strong tourism economy and a governor who supports tourism. We have, as was just mentioned, the advent of online gaming and sports betting, which is critical to Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun." Coan also highlighted Pfizer's work in developing a vaccine.

Lamont agreed with Coan's analysis not only in southeastern Connecticut, but statewide. He said the state has had 25 years of "pretty slow" economic growth but its last quarter was one of the best in the country. Connecticut was behind only Utah, Texas and South Dakota with its economy expanding by 7% in the fourth quarter of 2020.

He also said he's glad Connecticut received a credit ratings upgrade from Moody's Investors Service recently for the first time in 20 years, which could lower borrowing costs for the state. "It sends a message around the country that Connecticut is getting its fiscal house in order, we're getting our act together, come take a second look at the great state of Connecticut," he said.

Lamont reflected on the host community agreement, "a tough negotiation" that ended a nearly yearlong stalemate between New London and utilities Ørsted and Eversource, which are planning to use State Pier as a hub for the offshore wind industry. The pact would secure at least $750,000 per year to the city over a seven-year period, if the project is developed as planned, with provisions for extensions up to 10 years.

"At the end of the day, I think we've got a good deal for New London, a good deal for the region and we got a great deal for our state and our country. The city pushed hard, and deservedly so," Lamont said. He called the State Pier project "transformative."

The governor alluded to President Joe Biden and his administration's new goal to add 30 gigawatts of offshore wind generation to U.S. coastal waters by 2030, announced in late March. New London is part of the area that the Biden administration will be prioritizing, which is 800,000 acres in the New York Bight, a shallow area off the coast of New Jersey and Long Island.

Lamont also answered a question about the future National Coast Guard Museum, a $100-million facility set to be built behind New London's Union Station.

"The museum is something I think we're doing in collaboration with the Coast Guard, in collaboration with the private sector. The state is ready to step up and do its share," he said. "I know how important that is to New London, I know how important it is to the Coast Guard, the only one of the services that doesn't have a museum — it ought to be in Connecticut, it ought to be in New London. The state is willing to do its share, but it's not going to do the whole thing."

He floated a couple ideas for the business community to help with jobs and with education. He spoke about a community college certificate program where after a certain amount of time in the program, which would be tailored to a particular job, the participant could get a job with a business partner. He also said summer programs are going to be an important way to close the gap for students, many of whom have mostly been learning from home for more than a year.

Lamont's recreational marijuana proposal passed out of the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday with some changes. On Wednesday, he said he supports the bill, though he said he isn't "enthusiastic" about it.

"This bill is getting more complicated, everyone's looking at the money, and, 'How do I get more money for my particular cause?'" Lamont said. "I tried to keep it simple. I wanted a carefully regulated market with strict controls. I wanted it done by those already doing medical marijuana because they can do it safely, with controls. And I wanted the money to go to our towns and cities, with a particular focus on distressed communities, because everybody said they're too dependent on the property tax. How can we bring down the property tax and give them another source of revenue?"

The governor said he isn't overly concerned with the possibility of people "smoking more pot," especially since the alternative to legalizing marijuana involves people going "to the underground market, where that stuff is laced with a lot of poisons and is dangerous."

Lamont and southeastern Connecticut leaders spoke later during a news conference Wednesday morning about economic growth in Eastern Connecticut.

s.spinella@theday.com