Pequot gaming empire inspires Md. tribe About $2 million rolls in daily at Conn. casino

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LEDYARD, Conn. -- From here it's not hard to see why the Piscataway Indians are dreaming of prosperity and tribal regeneration through casino gambling in Maryland.

Their inspiration is Foxwoods, a gargantuan glass gambling palace perched in the wooded hills of southeastern Connecticut. The enterprise seems propelled by an unstoppable need to grow ever larger, making the Mashantucket Pequot Indians, who own it, ever richer.

Saverio Scheri, the director of engineering at Foxwoods and the man in charge of a $250-million expansion, won't say how much the gaming operations take in every day. He did say the slot machines alone swallow more than $1 million. Since they account for about 60 percent of the take, a gross of $2 million -- every day -- is a reasonable estimate.

And it will get larger.

It's easy to see why a group of Piscataway Indians in Maryland, whose intention to build a huge gambling casino and resort in Southern Maryland was disclosed last week, would look to Foxwoods as a model.

It is already the biggest gambling casino in this half of the world and is soon to be the largest on the planet. It will dwarf the palaces of Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

Every weekday about 17,000 gamblers, the timid and the bold, push through Foxwoods' doors and wander its current 139,000 square feet of gaming space. About 20,000 to 25,000 more come daily on weekends, by bus, by car. A platoon of men in blue and green are employed to direct traffic.

Foxwood has more than 3,000 slot machines, most of them engaged around the clock. Amid flashing lights, they produce a cacophony of clanging coins and honking horns, a kind of bedlam punctuated by occasional humanoid outbursts such as "Eeek!" or "Mama mia!"

And when the addition is finished another 2,000 machines will swell the din even more -- plus more blackjack and craps tables, more roulette, more baccarat for the late-night high rollers with their five-digit bets.

There is off-track betting and poker, played by many people through one whole day into another and occasionally into a third.

"At first we thought they were bringing their money in the bags they came in with," dealer coordinator Kathy Ormsby said of the marathon poker players. "It turned out to be their toiletries."

In addition to a new hotel, nightclub and theater opening next month, there are other grandiose plans. The Pequots have just purchased 1,100 acres across Route 2, off their reservation. A theme park is envisioned, along with a two-acre bird sanctuary, hotels, shopping malls and campgrounds.

"We could become as large as Disneyland," said Mr. Scheri. Then, as if suddenly sensitive to the dangers of hubris, added, "But not as big as Disney World."

Faint presence

The audacity of it all, if not the taste, would intimidate P. T. Barnum.

"We are negotiating with the government of China to dismantle a section of the Great Wall and bring it over here for reassembly," Mr. Scheri said.

What the Great Wall has to do with the Pequot Indians is anybody's guess. The tribal office declined to return calls. The Pequot tribe is only faintly present at Foxwoods, with a few architectural touches, a logo of "the fox people," and a tiny museum in the basement of the casino under a waterfall.

So how did all this happen to this small luckless tribe, a marginal group that 10 years ago had been scrimping by on the proceeds from the sale of maple syrup and hydroponic vegetables?

The Pequot numbered in the thousands when the English arrived in these parts. And they were very powerful, until a war with the settlers in 1637 left the tribe decimated, scattered and enslaved.

So reduced were they that the Census of 1910 recorded only 66 Pequots alive. Even today there are only about 250, with about 165 of them living on their 2,000-acre reservation in Ledyard.

Federal legislation

The Pequots' prosperity began back in 1986, with a small bingo operation. The original hall is still here, still used. That was three // years after the Pequots had achieved federal recognition -- and established a formal government-to-government relationship with Washington. It removed the tribe from Connecticut's legal jurisdiction and allowed it to purchase about 2,000 acres for reservation land.

The bingo did well. In 1988, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, permitting tribes to run gambling operations on reservations. The Pequots chose high-stakes bingo ($500 to play, prizes occasionally of $500,000). This earned the tribe about $3.5 million a year and planted even grander dreams in the minds of the tribal elders who decide policy.

The Foxwoods casino was the first fruit of those dreams. It opened here in February 1992 with a blessing by an Indian shaman. It was financed for about $55 million for the Pequots by the Genting Group, Malaysian investors with much experience in gambling.

Initial resistance

The state of Connecticut initially resisted the Pequot casino. But the tribe went to court, with some success, and also managed to bring federal political pressure to bear. In the end Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. reluctantly gave in. Now he accepts the Pequot gambling operation as something that is "here to stay, a part of the American culture," according to his spokesman, Arthur Henick.

Today, the Pequot gaming enterprise is the motor of the economy of southeast Connecticut.

"We think it's wonderful," gushed Charles A. Witt, not a gushing type. He is the president of the Norwich City Council, a town seven miles from Ledyard. "In fact we're ecstatic about it."

The casino, he said, "fills up every hotel in the area. It helps Mystic, Stonington, the whole region."

About 1,000 people from Norwich have jobs at Foxwoods. That is just about the same number from Norwich laid off in recent years by General Dynamics' Electric Boat operation, makers of nuclear attack submarines, not in great demand anymore.

Some opposition

Foxwoods employs about 7,000. According to Mr. Scheri, about 10,000 will be working at the casino and hotel by May. If the other ventures come on line, there will be even more jobs.

Not everyone is happy about the emergence of Foxwoods. Some in Ledyard and the surrounding hamlets fear the rural nature of this region will be spoiled. Others see more sinister consequences.

Cindy Brewster heads one of several grass-roots movements in the area that oppose the expansion of Pequot holdings. Her group of about 400 calls itself Residents Against Annexation. She fears that the Pequots, by buying up land around Foxwoods, will virtually obliterate the town.

"We have no control over what's going on. This small city [population 15,000] has been blasted out of the ground. We are fearful. They are offering people lots of money [for their properties]. We are losing our borders."

Crime is increasing, she said. Shortly after she began speaking out against the tribe's expansion, "A man drove by my house and shot ant it," she said.

Typical strategy

Sgt. David Guiher of the 16-man Ledyard police force says crime across the board -- car thefts, assaults, disorderly conduct -- rose about 10 percent the first year the casino was open. The numbers of calls for service tripled and have risen further this year.

The Pequots, Ms. Brewster said, have offered the towns of Ledyard, Preston and North Stonington $5 million each not to oppose further land purchases.

The offer, apparently, was to forestall a public outcry that might cause the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to veto Pequot expansion plans. If that was the intent of the tribe, it would be in keeping with its past strategy of buying political insurance for expansion or exclusivity for its operations.

These, said Ms. Brewster, are vast. "It's big, big money. It's power. Our politicians are terrified of it."

Whether they are is unproved. But the state's coffers have certainly been filled by it.

It is generally acknowledged that an annual cut for the state of nearly $120 million from the Foxwoods' slots encouraged Governor Weicker to smile at least tolerantly in the direction of Ledyard. That represents a percentage of the take and can only increase.

Then there was another $130 million flat payment in exchange for the state's refusal to allow Las Vegas interests to set up casinos elsewhere in Connecticut. Thus, Governor Weicker was able to say with some honesty that he prevented the expansion of gambling throughout the state, and at the same time gave the Pequots and their considerable allies what they wanted.

Obstacles ahead

All of which leads to the question of the Piscataways. Can they do in Maryland what the Mashantucket Pequots did in Connecticut?

The Piscataways -- who are considering operating one or more casinos, hotels, a theme park and horse racing in Prince %J George's or Charles counties -- face some serious obstacles. First, they are not a federally recognized tribe and do not have the independence of action that status confers. There is no untaxed, "sovereign" Piscataway reservation upon which to build casino.

Obtaining recognition is difficult, without strong political backing within the state where the tribe resides.

Second, resistance from entrenched gambling interests, such as the Maryland racing industry, or even the state government's own lottery operations, did not exist in Connecticut. Most gambling in Connecticut was bingo, charity affairs, dog racing and jai alai, generally small-time.

Of course, the scent of money growing can turn a lot of people around. It did in Hartford. Perhaps it could in Annapolis.

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