Beyond Gaming: Rodney Butler Looks to the Future
It’s a busy time for Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation chair Rodney Butler.
Foxwoods Resort Casino is in the middle of a major expansion that includes new restaurants from Gordon Ramsey and the Wahlberg family as well as construction of the $300 million Great Wolf Lodge.
“There’s an incredible amount of things we’re working on right now and celebrating,” Butler told CBIA president and CEO Chris DiPentima during The Connecticut Economy Conference Sept. 14 in Hartford.
For many, the Mashantucket Pequots are synonymous with Foxwoods Resort Casino and gaming in Connecticut.
But the tribe’s roots and impact on Connecticut run far deeper.
”We have been here for thousands of years,” said Butler. “We’re never leaving Connecticut. This is our home.”
Before his conversation with DiPentima, Butler shared a video highlighting the tribe’s history.
That history includes their land being taken illegally, before gaining federal recognition in 1983 and eventually building one of the largest casino destinations in North America.
“I think it was just important to start with the historical video to recognize where we’ve come from in such a short period of time,” Butler said.
“Forty years ago, to see what Mashantucket looked like, from a single home and a few trailers, from my council at that time working fields in timbering and tapping trees for maple syrup, to a billion dollar enterprise is nothing short of remarkable and truly, I’d say, the American dream.”
Butler’s role is a complex one: he leads a sovereign nation and oversees a small city, a $1 billion business, a $100 million government, and a family trust.
“When you think about the job of a tribal leader, first and foremost, it’s head of a family,” he said.
He also represents the tribe at the state and federal level.
“And then I look at my role also in the government capacity, I also spend time with Gov. Lamont,” he said. “And I spend time regularly with our great legislators.
“I’ll spend time with our federal legislators as well, and negotiate on different pieces of legislation.
“And I’ve also had the opportunity to sit down with multiple presidents over the last few years talking about national issues that impact Indian country.”
‘Lost Our Way’
Butler grew up in Montville, and was a walk-on for the University of Connecticut football team under Skip Holtz before graduating with a degree in finance.
After working as an analyst at Foxwoods, and managing the company’s portfolio of non-gaming properties, he was elected to the tribal council in 2004.
He was then elected tribal chair in 2010, amid the Great Recession.
“The challenges of the Great Recession allowed us as a government to realign our focus and look at what’s important to us as a community,” Butler said.
He acknowledged that after more than a decade of success, Foxwoods and the tribal government “lost our way.”
The resort had just completed the Fox Tower expansion and had a record-high 11,000 employees when, in Butler’s words, the “floor fell out from underneath us.”
“The community actually relied on or leaned on me to step up as chairman,” he said. “And so I was honored with that position in a time of crisis.”
Butler said that experience helped the Pequots navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Within days, we were actually talking about how we’re going to come out of this stronger,” he said.
“Having the ability to take a deep breath in the month and a half, almost two months, of COVID shutdown allowed us to finally look at the property holistically and say, ‘what do we need to change here? How do we freshen it up? How do we make it attractive once again?’”
In 2021, Foxwoods named Jason Guyot as president and CEO, the first Mashantucket Pequot to hold that position.
Butler said Guyot’s vision has redefined Foxwoods, transitioning from being heavily casino-centric to a regional and world class resort destination.
“Under Jason’s leadership, it spurred this next generation of how do we really create a resort feel that gaming is almost secondary in people’s minds,” he said.
“The focus is really coming here for entertainment, for fun with your families to enjoy that. And that led to the recreation that we’ve done.”
Butler said that the addition of online sports gaming helped during a time of increased competition from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York.
“We are one of six states in the country that have legalized online gaming,” he said. “And I would say we’ve done it the most successfully, when you look at the actual revenue production and the tax receipts that the state’s receiving.
“All of us working together to recognize the opportunity for the state and being innovative and leaders in the gaming industry—just like we were in ‘92 when we launched Foxwoods—speaks volumes to everybody that was willing to do that, and the legislature that was willing to support it, and it’s paid incredible dividends,” he said.
Butler explained that the Mashantucket Pequots contribute over $1 billion annually to Connecticut’s economy.
“There’s the employment factor, but the biggest direct contribution is obviously the slot contribution to the state,” he said.
“I know it’s a revenue share, but it’s really a tax. We’re by far the largest taxpayer in the state of Connecticut.
“The two tribes [the Mohegans, which run Mohegan Sun] combined, our slot contributions to the state were $215 million last year. With the advent of sports betting and gaming, we’ve added on another $65 million to the state.
“When you look at that—in comparison to the corporate taxes that were collected in the state in 2022—I think the state collected about $1.4 billion in taxes from all industries. So we made up 20% of that with the two of us.”
He added that the economic impact “shouldn’t continue to go unrecognized and needs to be shouted from the rooftops.”
“And that direct contribution to every single municipality in the state of Connecticut affects everybody in this room and beyond,” he said.
“And then you go to the hundreds of vendors that we have, that are almost in every single town in the state of Connecticut.”
Great Wolf Lodge, which is set to open in 2025, represents a series of capital investments on the Foxwood site.
“There’s 1,000 laborers, skilled laborers that are working on that project,” Butler said.
“What we’ve been able to envision at Foxwoods between the last two years and going ahead, we spent a half a million dollars in construction projects and capital dollars, and there’s still more to come.
“Think about the impact that that has on the broader economy of Connecticut, and all those lives that are touched by that. It’s an incredible driver for the state.”
Looking forward, Butler said Foxwoods will continue to expand and diversify beyond gaming.
“That’s the reason why the economy and Mashantucket exist,” he said. “It’s to provide goods and services to our citizens, and allow them to come back to Mashantucket.
“In that video, you saw how people left Mashantucket because there was no economy there. There was no reason to be there.
“They had to survive and so the family migrated to the cities and wherever they could find employment.
“So how do we how do we make sure that that’s sustainable? Well, it’s got to expand beyond gaming. And again, Great Wolf is a component of that.
“We have a lot of square footage, we have nine million square feet under one roof at Foxwoods.
“And there’s some very large spaces in there that we can we are looking at reimagining into unique entertainment offerings outside of gaming.”
DiPentima noted the parallels between the Mashantucket and Connecticut economies.
“The state has money, for the fourth year in a row, big budget surpluses because of the great work that we’ve done on the fiscal guardrails and making investments in Connecticut, and you guys have done the same thing,” DiPentima said.
Butler said for Connecticut’s economy to grow, even amid threats of a potential downturn, policymakers’ should focus on “keeping your core businesses sustainable and thriving.”
“We talk a lot about the need to attract new businesses, to make the state more attractive for people to move here,” Butler said.
“How about the thousands of businesses that are here? Right? How do we invest in them and keep them here?
“I mean, you’re all business owners. It’s easier to retain your current clients than it is to get in new ones.
“So how do we build on the amazing companies and businesses that are here and support them and give them reasons to stay here and grow here?”
During the 2023 legislative session, the Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegans pushed lawmakers to address the dual taxation system that allows neighboring municipalities to tax businesses operating on tribal land.
Lawmakers eventually established a working group to study the issue and share recommendations with the legislature.
“We assess those fees, because we provide the services, we have our own fire police, education system, roads crew, on those businesses that reside within Mashantucket,” Butler said.
“But at the same time, the local municipality will come in and assess taxes. That’s a disincentive for businesses to be in Mashantucket and in Connecticut.
“How do we implement those simple fixes, so that we can continue to grow our economy, which is going to support the broader economy of Connecticut? And how do we avoid those mistakes moving forward?
“Let’s not put roadblocks in our own way.”
Butler shared his outlook for Connecticut’s economy following what he described as “a great run of economic growth in the last few years, spurred by a lot of stimulus and the like.”
He pointed to a series of warning signs, including declining savings rates, increased personal debt, rising interest rates, and recent revenue declines at Foxwoods, which he called “a leading economic indicator.”
“It important to understand where we’re at, and what we can control and what we can’t control,” he said.
“But then, what can we do internally? Let’s make sure that we’re focused on making a supportive environment for businesses.
“I hate to be, you know, dire, because we always want to be upbeat about the economy. But, it’s real, and that’s just the reality of economic cycles.
“We had a nice run, so let’s just understand that, appreciate it, and be ready for it.”
Butler said it was important for the state to measure its economic performance in relative terms.
“Let’s not beat ourselves up too much when we’re on the downside, but let’s also see how we went when the economy flattens out, that we’re better off than everybody else,” he said.
“That’s got to be our measuring stick, you know, even as we’re high fiving ourselves in this last cycle of economic growth.
“You know, state GDP was up 6%, 7%, whatever it was, but New York was up 15 and Massachusetts was up 17.
“Let’s not pat ourselves on the back for that. That’s not success, because all boats rise with the tide.
“But same thing on the downside. As the broader economy starts to cool, let’s make sure that we’re not leading the pack, and see what we can do as a state to make sure that we’re down less than everybody else, and continuing to support our businesses.”
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