Whether or not you think the Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs casino has been good for the region, there's no question the man who nursed it to life and nurtured its expansion has been an asset and his contributions to the community will be missed.
Bobby Soper has been tapped for an even bigger challenge in taking the reins of the struggling Mohegan Sun tribal casino in Connecticut. Battered by reluctant consumers, massive debt and ballooning competition, the once-mighty flagship of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority needs new leadership and a new vision – the colloquial term "focused like a laser" could not be more appropriate.
Those who've come to know Soper since he arrived here in 2005 with the mandate to turn a down-at-the-heels harness track into a gleaming palace of gambling and entertainment have seen that in practice. The local Mohegan Sun operation has grown steadily, reaching each milestone on or under deadline. All along the way, Soper's insistence on putting the patron experience above other considerations has been clear and that's surely one thing that caught the eye of the management in Connecticut.
We had some things in common when my wife and I sought out Bobby and his wife Jackie's company when they first arrived. In those early conversations, when I expressed reservations about gambling's social and economic effects, he made the case that if done properly it was a legitimate form of entertainment for many people. I remained skeptical, but had to admit the gamblers I interviewed were not the wild-eyed dupes I had imagined.
Meanwhile, Bobby seemed to devote as much time and effort to the community as he did to the casino, serving on boards, hosting events and helping to promote worthwhile causes. A lot of businesspersons do this, and not just for altruistic reasons. Relationships built rubbing shoulders with the movers and shakers can come in handy when trying to attract new business or take out a loan. Except Soper didn't need either; his clientele was diverse and growing and the casino operated like a prosperous island in a sea of mediocrity.
Soper was "more than just a figurehead or a name," said Charles Barber, CEO of the Luzerne Foundation, impressed by the commitments Soper made at a time he had more than enough on his plate in building a huge business and raising a family.
Not that Bobby isn't a hard-nosed businessman when necessary. One example came when he led a fight against the supposedly onerous 55 percent state tax rate on casino slot machine revenue, going so far as to threaten the Mohegans might pull out if the rate wasn't lowered. It wasn't, they stayed and both sides have done well.
I'm still not convinced gambling will be a long-term net gain for the area; while Soper was generous with his time and talent and made an effort to partner with local businesses, in the end a casino's goal is to keep all the money within its walls. So far there has been little development around the Downs property, as the casino caters to gamblers' needs with restaurants, bars and shops that line the gaming floor.
My relationship with Soper has been mutually beneficial, and we both know it. I got information and access to better tell the casino's story to readers and he was a constant presence in the news, carefully making the case for the business to a skeptical public.
Community relations can work the same way, and I hope Bobby's departure does not diminish the casino's commitments. It is a huge economic engine, but to be a respected member of the community it must continue to share its good fortune.
Ron Bartizek, Times Leader business editor, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 570-970-7157.