“You want to see Lady Gaga? Well, I can bring her to Empire City,” Jim Murren, chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts International, said while explaining his concept for turning the Empire City Casino and Yonkers Raceway site into a major entertainment destination.
Murren spoke at The Business Council of Westchester’s annual dinner on Oct. 10 at the Hilton Westchester in Rye Brook.
Entertainment has long been associated with MGM, from the “That’s Entertainment” series of movies about the glory days of the studio to the use of the Arthur Schwartz tune “That’s Entertainment” as a theme song. The resorts company is now separate and distinct from MGM film operations.
At the beginning of the year, MGM closed on its $850 million purchase of the casino and raceway property from the Rooney family and has been engaged in a campaign to obtain a full gaming license from New York state, which would allow it to introduce Las Vegas-style gambling. It then would be eligible for a sports betting license.
“What we can do for Yonkers, for Westchester, can be achieved if we get live gaming and full-scale gaming, in terms of sports betting, in terms of live table games, providing more entertainment whether it’s in terms of theatrical or sports entertainment,” Murren said.
He answered questions posed by Marsha Gordon, president and CEO of The Business Council of Westchester.
Reminding the audience of about 900 that MGM Resorts is a global company with vast resources, Murren said he hopes to continue building a level of support to create a louder voice that will be heard by Albany’s lawmakers. He classified the current state moratorium on issuing gaming licenses to downstate casinos as a mistake. He said the company can’t deliver on what it sees as tremendous potential for the 97-acre site in Yonkers without having the full casino license.
“I don’t want to be in the commodity business,” Murren said. “Anyone can run a slot machine house or manage somebody else’s property. We feel like what we do very well is develop an entertainment environment. And, if we don’t feel that we can make that differentiating edge, we don’t need to be in every gaming market. And, we’re not in all of them.”
One market MGM is not yet in is Bridgeport, Connecticut, where the company has been unable to get the state to OK its plan to build a casino.
There is a bit of irony in MGM’s inability to get its Bridgeport project off the ground when considering that Murren told the Business Council’s audience, “My family came from Ireland during the famine and all went to Bridgeport. I was born in Bridgeport as was my sister,” he explained in response to Gordon’s question about his background.
“My family moved from Bridgeport to Fairfield. Our dad was in the seminary. He’s a product of Fairfield Prep and Fairfield University, Connecticut Law School, UConn, and practiced law until he passed away in 1990,” Murren said. “We grew up in Fairfield. From Roger Ludlowe High School I went to Trinity College. I wanted to be an architect.”
Instead of architecture, Murren wound up on Wall Street and in one of his positions raised capital for the gaming and lodging industry.
Murren said he’s been keeping in mind not just the 9 million visitors to Empire City Casino in a typical year, but the 67 million people who visit New York City annually and sees the kind of opportunity there that MGM found with its MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, overlooking the Potomac River.
It has a 3,000-seat theater which it bills as “the premier entertainment destination in the region.”
“What do you want to see in Yonkers? What do you want to see in this part of Westchester? I can help bring those ideas to life. So, 97 acres in Yonkers, a canvas as large as anyone has ever had. That’s the largest canvass of real estate that I’ve ever had to think about developing,” Murren said.
He noted that MGM was involved in developing one of the highest-grossing arenas in the world in Las Vegas where the National Hockey League’s Vegas Golden Knights play and other sporting and concert events are held.
Murren said MGM needs to be thought of as a global leader in entertainment, not just a gambling or resort operator.
“When I joined the company, it was very casino-centric. We really evolved the model to more of an integrated resort model where we have certainly a casino, but we have large conference facilities, hotels, food and beverage, retail, but I think we’re trying to build ourselves into something beyond that: into the entertainment experience,” he said.
He mentioned that the Yonkers location has about 1,200 employees.
“Imagine if there were two or three thousand more employees,” he said. “Imagine what we could do if we replaced a video screen with six humans who are actually dealing cards. Imagine if MGM has propelled Empire City into a regional destination where you’ll want to have your business meetings, other opportunities to consume entertainment.”
Murren said MGM wants to work with local businesses and pointed to advice he received about 20 years ago from Kirk Kerkorian, the investor who bought the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio in 1969 and subsequently developed the hotel operation.
“He told me, ‘You cannot be sustainable as a company unless the communities in which you operate are sustainable.’ ” Murren said.
He has found that making sure small and medium-size local businesses succeed by using them as vendors helps MGM succeed as does hiring locally.
“We play to win, but we also understand we can’t do anything alone,” he said.