Piscataways seek Southern Md. casino Racing industry likely to oppose it

September 29, 1993|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Staff Writer

A Maryland confederation of Piscataway Indians, hoping to take advantage of a federal law that allows commercial gambling on Indian property, wants to build a huge gambling casino and resort in the heart of populous Southern Maryland.

The proposal, still in its earliest stages, could include one or more casinos and hotels, a theme park, a marina, thoroughbred and trotter horse racing, and an Indian history museum.

The project could employ thousands of people and generate millions of dollars in tax revenue for the state, said Lewis A. Rivlin, a Rockville lawyer who is crafting the casino proposal on behalf of the Piscataway Conoy Confederacy and Subtribes Inc.

The group claims to represent 5,000 to 7,000 Marylanders of Piscataway ancestry.

Sites in both Prince George's and Charles counties -- where the Piscataway have lived since before the first Europeans settled in Maryland -- are under consideration, Mr. Rivlin said, although no specific locations have been publicly identified.

Maryland officials have yet to be briefed on the proposal, which is certain to draw opposition from the horse-racing industry and others concerned about any expansion of gambling in the state.

Mr. Rivlin said his clients expect opposition, just as similar proposals in other states have proven to be controversial.

"We think it'll be a difficult decision for a governor to make," Mr. Rivlin said. "But the prospect of 10,000, 20,000 or 30,000 new jobs, plus the [tax revenue] will provide considerable relief for the [state] budget."

The proposal is being modeled after the wildly successful Foxwoods casino and hotel complex operated by the Mashantucket-Pequot tribe in Ledyard, Conn. Foxwoods now nets more than $1 million a day.

The complex, which opened in February 1992, now employs nearly 7,000 people and "is fast becoming the economic hub" of southeastern Connecticut, the Hartford Courant reported this month.

Foxwoods is expected to generate more than $116 million in taxes and other revenue for the state this year.

The Piscataway proposal in Maryland surfaces just as concerns over legal and illegal gambling here have prompted Gov. William Donald Schaefer to name a new task force to study the issue and recommend whether more state regulation is needed.

Lottery revenue down

It also comes as Maryland's horse-racing industry struggles to--stay afloat with off-track-betting parlors, as the state-run lottery sees its once-booming revenue leveling off, and as officials in the District of Columbia are considering a proposal to permit casino gambling there.

Under the federal Indian gaming law of 1988, tribes that qualify may offer any form of gambling that is permitted elsewhere in their home state.

In Maryland, virtually every type of gambling is permitted somewhere, including lotteries, bingo, horse racing, "tip jars," slot machines and Las Vegas-style casino nights.

Mr. Rivlin said if the governor opposes the idea, he could veto it. But before the Piscataway casino project reaches that stage, and long before the first roulette wheel spins into action, a number of obstacles would have to be overcome:

* The tribe must first be officially recognized by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, a process that could take a year or more.

* The Piscataway, who have no tribal reservation in Maryland, would then have to purchase property on which the casino complex would be built.

* Both the governor of Maryland and the U.S. Department of Interior would have to give their approval before the land could be used for gaming.

* If the governor were not opposed, a compact between the tribe and the state would have to be negotiated, specifying among other provisions the amount the state could expect to gain by taxing the gambling.

"The state has more than ample opportunity to object," Mr. Rivlin said.

Mr. Schaefer is on an economic development trip in Europe and could not be reached for comment yesterday.

His staff chief, Paul E. Schurick, said he was unaware of the proposal and doubted the governor was aware of it either.

"This is a hugely controversial national issue," Mr. Schurick said, noting that governors of more than a dozen states shared concerns about reservation gaming at this summer's National Governors' Association meeting in Tulsa, Okla.

"This isn't something that could be looked at in a vacuum," Mr. Schurick said. "It brings in a lot of national politics and congressional involvement."

In the past five years, at least 88 Indian gaming operations have opened in 18 states. Many more are planned. And at least 30 tribes are waiting for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to rule on their applications for recognition.

Mr. Rivlin said it was doubtful the Piscataway proposal would be ready for consideration at the state level before Mr. Schaefer's term expires in January 1995. The issue would then be left in the lap of his successor.

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