By Nathan Mayberg
CONNECTICUT November 3, 2006 Mitchell Grossinger Etess was born into Catskills royalty back in 1958, growing up in one of the houses at Sullivan County’s most famous resorts Grossinger’s.
The Liberty hotel was at the height of its prominence, where some of the biggest names in show business politics and New York sports would stop by, along with thousands of people every weekend.
Today, Etess is the President and CEO of one of the country’s most famous and successful casinos, Mohegan Sun, in Uncasville, Conn. He is also the CEO of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority.
His grandparents, Harry and Jennie, built what is now remembered as the Grossinger’s resort complex. Jennie’s parents actually founded the hotel as a boarding house.
The 1976 Liberty Central graduate worked nearly every position at the resort until he became General Manager, as did his brother Mark before him. He was the last General Manager of the Grossinger family, which sold the hotel in 1985 to Hotels International. It closed a decade later, and is now unused except for its beautiful golf course.
He recalled his days in Liberty with fondness. “Liberty was a real fun place to be,” he said. He is also glad that he was able to go to school in a small town, with a good learning environment.
He started working at the age of 13 at the hotel, everywhere from the day center, convention services and then the golf course. It was on the greens that he learned to be an expert golfer with his late brother Mark. The duo won the Sullivan County Democrat Two-Man, Better-Ball Golf Tournament in back to back years, in 1981 and 1982.
Tragically, Mark was killed in a helicopter accident 17 years ago. Mitchell described his brother as “an amazing person.” Mark was the President of the Trump Plaza and Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. Mitchell worked with him at the Trump Plaza briefly, where he rose from Public Relations Manager to Senior Vice President of Marketing.
After six years in Atlantic City, Mitchell went out west to Nevada to take a job as Vice President of Marketing at Players Island Resort-Casino-Spa in Nevada. He was part of a six-month opening team there. No too long after that, he returned to the east coast to work at Mohegan Sun.
Two years ago, he took over Mohegan Sun. “It has been an amazing experience,” said Etess. He joined the Mohegan team in 1995 before the casino opened, helping to see it built the following year. Since that time, Mohegan Sun has developed into a 3- million square foot facility with two different casinos, a 1,200-room luxury hotel, a 10,000-seat arena, 350-seat Cabaret, 100,000 square feet of convention space, a bingo hall, and a wide variety of restaurants. They even own a WNBA franchise the Connecticut Sun.
The arena is one of the busiest of its size, said Etess. It attracts world class entertainment. Over the next month, the arena will host world famous acts such as The Who, Aerosmith, Dolly Parton, Tony Bennett, John Fogerty and Lionel Richie.
Etess credits the success of the casino to its employees, who total approximately 10,000. Wages for the employees are 30 percent higher than the average hotel. He credited his years of growing up and working at Grossinger’s for his success in the gaming and resort industry. Nothing is more important than your employees, he said.
“The way you treat your employees is reflected in how they treat your customers,” he stated. “That is the key.”
The company built a $40 million employee center with a gym, computer lab, pharmacy, bank, wellness center and dry cleaners. The corporation also provides full health care coverage.
Last year, Mohegan Sun’s gross revenue was $1.5 billion. Recently, the company purchased Pocono Downs, a racetrack in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. It is currently installing slot machines. It’s also working on casino development deals with Native American tribes in Wisconsin and Washington State.
Of Catskill Resorts and Casinos
Looking back at his last days at the Grossinger’s, Etess recalled it becoming harder and harder to operate. His family was not able to make the commitment to keep it growing, he said.
The Catskills, in his view, was becoming a challenge to sell as a destination. There were multiple reasons. People’s travel habits began to change when air travel grew less expensive. Families started to travel to other tourist spots across the country and overseas, rather than head to Sullivan County. In addition, people’s eating habits also changed.
Etess pointed to a moment at the end of the movie Dirty Dancing, based on a family’s experiences in the Borscht Belt, where the owner of the hotel says to the band leader that “things have changed.” He doesn’t believe the younger generation will want to keep returning.
The needs and desires of younger people have changed since the heyday of the hotels in the 1950s and 1960s. Amusement parks, organized sports, and even Gameboys are all part of the new youth culture, said Etess.
As for the possibility of casinos coming here, he believes they will help provide growth, jobs and economic development to an area already known for tourism. But, he cautioned, “they shouldn’t be a complete panacea.”
“It won’t solve all of the county’s problems but it will help. It will attract a lot of people.” He said locals should expect their towns to become more crowded.
There will be a net impact on increased housing and employment. Local businesses, such as car dealers, supermarkets, hotels, restaurants and so on, will see increased business.
He estimated that it will take about two years for a casino to be built here, once its receives final approval.
Etess said his casino is active in helping problem gamblers, with a variety of programs and advertisements throughout the casino for addiction hotlines.
“What people need to remember most is that most people consume gambling responsibly and (ensure) those who need help get help,” he said.
His parents David and Elaine Grossinger Etess currently reside in Florida, while several cousins still live in the Catskills.
“It’s been a great experience,” he said of his time with Mohegan Sun. “The tribe has been great to work with.”