Indian Casinos Struggle To Get Out From Under Debt

By Salon Staff

Published January 21, 2012 5:27PM (EST)

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The warning from the ratings agency could not have been more direct: The parent company of the Mohegan Sun faces a "wall of debt" due early this year as the casino, struggling with rising competition and a weak economy that's hammered consumer spending, tries to refinance hundreds of millions of dollars in loans.

The Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority has $505 million in loans outstanding and another $250 million due April 1, Keith Foley, an analyst at Moody's Investors Service, recently told investors. The gaming authority, parent company of casinos in Uncasville, Conn., and Wilkes-Barre, Pa., also has about $21 million in interest payments due Feb. 15, he said.

Mohegan Sun announced this month that fourth-quarter net income rose significantly, to $46.7 million, compared with a net loss of $26.3 million in the same period in 2010. But it also said it failed to reach an agreement to refinance debt, though lenders waived a possible default.

"They get to live another day," Foley said in an interview.

Executives at Mohegan Sun did not respond to a request for an interview.

Mohegan Sun is not alone as several Indian-run casinos — some with plans for expansion that have been put on hold — struggle to refinance debt after being caught short when the economy went into recession in December 2007.

Foxwoods Resort Casino in eastern Connecticut seeks to restructure debt, and the Mescalero Apache tribe restructured $200 million in bonds last year for casino resort property in New Mexico. A spokeswoman said Foxwoods is in debt talks, but would not provide details.

An advantage that Indian-run casinos have over their commercial counterparts is that they cannot file for bankruptcy and creditors can't foreclose on their properties because tribal governments are sovereign, said Clyde Barrow, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.

Valerie Red-Horse, an investment banker and financial adviser who worked on the Mecalero Apache deal, called it the "best model out there," in part because it preserved the casino's financial distributions to tribal members and tribal government while bond holders kept their stakes, she said.

Some tribes have been forced to agree to cut their distributions until debt is paid down, Red-Horse said. Making sure distributions continue is a "very delicate subject. It causes a lot of angst among tribes," she said.

Financial problems at the casino, the Inn of the Mountain Gods, were due in part to the slowing economy and faltering tourism, she said.

Indian-run casinos expanded rapidly because they are strong economic development tools for the tribes that run the casinos, said Peter Kulick, a Lansing, Mich., tax and gaming lawyer. The businesses survived economic downturns in the 1970s and 1980s and were seen as immune to recessions, he said.

"In the last go-round, that's not the case," he said.

Kulick and Barrow said competition is the newest threat to casinos, even as revenue is now rising as the economy slowly improves.

"There are some real pockets of recovery going on right now," Barrow said.

Massachusetts legalized casino gambling in November, but it will be years before the three casinos authorized will be operating.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced this month that he would work with the Genting Group, one of the world's largest gambling companies, to transform the Aqueduct horse track into a megaplex that would eventually include the nation's largest convention center, 3,000 hotel rooms and a major expansion of a casino that began operating in October.

For Connecticut's two casinos, "Aqueduct could be pretty substantial competitive pressure," Barrow said.

"I don't see real revenue growth for Connecticut's casinos, he said.

Declining or stagnant revenue is bad news for Connecticut state government, which takes 25 percent of what the casinos pull in. State revenue from the two casinos reached their peak in 2007 at more than $411 million, said Kevin Lembo, Connecticut's comptroller who tracks state revenue from all sources.

That's declined to $342 million in the state's budget year that ended last June 30, down $69 million, or 17 percent.

"The loss of revenue is one obvious and immediate impact for the state," Lembo said. "What happens to jobs? What happens to future development plans? These are areas of concern for everyone at this point."

Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman said the health of the two casinos is critical because they are destinations in southeast Connecticut, drawing tourists who also visit vineyards along the shoreline, the Mystic Aquarium and other sites.

"This is a big thing for us," she said.

Salon Staff

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