|By Mark Peters, The Hartford Courant,
Conn.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jun. 1, 2007 --LEDYARD -- John B. Rooney arrived in Connecticut as the lowliest architect on a project to build a casino in the middle of the woods. Fifteen years later, he's in charge of planning the future of Foxwoods Resort Casino in the newly created position of vice president of resort development.
Rooney, 48, remembers the "Wild West days" when Foxwoods built rapidly, and sometimes haphazardly.
But as the gambling market in the Northeast matures, the approach has changed, and Foxwoods and its owners, the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, looked closely at customer research as they planned a $700 million expansion that is underway in a partnership with MGM Mirage. Rooney's new job is to plan for what's next.
Q. What's your market research telling you about the future?
A. The first and fundamental issue is that as you penetrate deeper and deeper into the market, you have to diversify. It is not a situation in Connecticut anymore where either we or Mohegan Sun can just add casino space. It has to be about other things.
I can't tell you how many focus groups I attended in New York, Boston, Toronto, Hartford and Providence. Every town you can think of on the Eastern Seaboard, almost. We went not just [to talk to] existing Foxwoods customers, but potential customers.
One of the obvious things is entertainment. We do a pretty good job right now at Foxwoods in terms of entertainment, but when we open our new 4,000-seat theater, it is going to elevate us to another level in terms of the type of entertainment we can provide. The other part of the market that we're trying to develop further is the convention business.
Beyond that, it's all about amenities. If you look at Las Vegas and Atlantic City, any of the larger properties -- ourselves, the Mohegan [tribe] -- the customers are getting more and more sophisticated every year, and they're really demanding better amenities in terms of food and beverage, retail, spas, things like that.
Those programs are something we are targeting with the MGM project, and now we are going back and looking at the existing Foxwoods campus and asking ourselves what we can do to actively improve it.
Q. Is there somewhere outside the Northeast where you visit and say, 'Wow, this is a great resort casino'?
A. I don't get out much. I'm here about 60 or 70 hours a week. But actually, our relationship and joint venture with MGM Mirage has been great because it has enabled me to go out and visit with the people at MGM Mirage. And I love going and staying at the Bellagio, where their corporate offices are. I think the Bellagio is one of the most well-planned and well-executed facilities in the country.
Q. How much more space is there to grow here?
A. There are several very good development sites that have not been utilized at Foxwoods right now. And you can see some of them that are existing surface parking lots. But there's half a dozen or so other development sites that are on the reservation proper that are decently sized enough which could support another type of development, and we're actively looking at those things in terms of what our options are for the future, and if we do introduce other amenities to Foxwoods or other brands. We are looking at the potential of having other brands at Foxwoods as a part of this overall resort like we did with the MGM Grand.
Q. Do you spend any time thinking about what it will look like here 10 or 20 years from now?
A. There is balance. You have to keep the big picture in your mind. You're always asking yourself, 'What if?'
Q. When you ask yourself 'What if?' what's the answer that comes back?
A. There are really no limits at the moment. The market research shows that the market is large enough here in the Northeast to support substantial improvements and additions to this resort. The on-reservation development is one thing. The off-reservation development is another thing the tribe is very interested in. The tribe owns -- as you may know -- several thousand acres, which became, during the first part of the development, the Lake of Isles golf courses. But there is land around the Lake of Isles development that the tribe owns, and also up and down Route 2, starting in Preston, coming through Ledyard into North Stonington. And the tribe is actively evaluating proposals to develop those properties. They're going through a master planning effort right now.
Q. This used to be an area of quiet towns and country roads.
A. Yes, it was.
Q. Is it possible to keep some of that and expand Foxwoods?
A. There is an obvious tug of war going on. The reality of Foxwoods' success is that there is a critical mass here at Foxwoods that isn't going to go away. It does need to be acknowledged at some point. The tribe has taken a tremendous initiative in terms of trying to improve the road out in front of Foxwoods.
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