At Pequots' new casino, patrons are elbow-to-elbow


LEDYARD, Conn. -- There isn't even a sign at the exit along Interstate 95 to direct motorists to the new Foxwoods casino on an Indian reservation here, but gamblers don't seem to be having any trouble finding the place.

They've been coming in droves.

Since the casino first opened Feb. 15, resulting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the rural road that leads to it, the $60 million gambling emporium -- the first on the East Coast outside Atlantic City, N.J. -- has surpassed even the most optimistic expectations.

Located in a rural, forested, scenic stretch of southeastern Connecticut that still has silos, old stone dividing walls and dairy farms, the casino is averaging nearly 10,000 gamblers on weekdays and up to 15,000 on weekends, crowds that were not expected until summer tourist season.

Gaming tables have been so busy that the casino scrapped initial plans to close at 2 a.m. and has been open around the clock since the grand opening.

"On weekends, it's a zoo," said Paul Gigliotti, a security guard. "I get in at 5 o'clock in the afternoon, and it's mobbed. I leave at 2 in the morning, and it's still mobbed. From what I hear, it doesn't clear out until about 6 a.m."

Foxwoods, at 45,000 square feet, is about the size of Bally's Grand Hotel Casino in Atlantic City, but it is unlike any Atlantic City casino.

For one thing, it has windows, which the 250-member Mashantucket Pequot tribe that owns the casino insisted on to demonstrate its appreciation for nature. The building also seems more spacious than do other casinos, with high ceilings and wide traffic lanes, and there are no slot machines, which are the mainstay of many other casinos but which remain illegal in Connecticut.

Then there is Foxwoods' unusual decor: an Indian motif, with Pequot designs on the carpet, American Indian art on the walls and cocktail waitresses who wear feathers in their hair.

Waitresses have been earning $250 to $400 a day in tips, employees say.

But while visitors are drinking, they're apparently so hungry to play blackjack, baccarat, craps, poker and other games that the majority of them aren't bothering to eat. With the size of the crowds, the casino expected to serve up to 4,000 meals a day. The players have been consuming less than half that.

Although officials of the tribe decline to disclose specific financial information, casino President Alfred J. Luciani says he expects the casino's take the first year to surpass $100 million.

"I can't fit any more people in the building," Mr. Luciani said.

Mr. Luciani is one of 350 Atlantic City casino employees the tribe has hired to operate Foxwoods, with 100 more expected by June. Only 30 tribal members are employed.

The casino's dazzling success has come despite opposition from the state, which repeatedly tried to block the project.

Arguing that the casino would attract organized crime and prostitution, Connecticut officials, led first by Gov. William A. O'Neill and later by Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., fought the casino all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but lost. Under the 1988 federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, federally recognized Indian tribes can operate on their land any games of chance that are legal in their state. In Connecticut, non-profit groups can run "Las Vegas nights" to raise money.

But even with federal approval, the state has continued to throw the tribe bureaucratic roadblocks at every possible turn, according to Mr. Luciani.

For example, the state still will not permit road signs along major highways directing traffic to the casino, although it does permit them for other private businesses like shopping malls and restaurants. The state has also tried to force the tribe to pay for local road and traffic improvements, some of which tribal officials say were in need of repair long before there was a casino.

Mr. Luciani attributes the state's apparent intransigence to this: The casino pays no taxes on winnings, since it operates on the Pequots' 1,800-acre reservation, which is considered a sovereign nation. But he said such a view was narrow-minded, because the casino does pay income and sales taxes, and it has created thousands of jobs in a region reeling from cutbacks at local defense plants.

I= Roger Simon is on vacation. His column will resume May 6.

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