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

October 03, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Staff Writer

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

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