The Piscataways, like the Pequots, have that old gamblin' fever

Frank A. DeFilippo

October 07, 1993|By Frank A. DeFilippo

STEVE Wynn has a golden touch. He was able to parlay his 30 percent interest in the family's Wayson's Corner bingo parlor in Anne Arundel County into two gaudy casinos -- the Mirage in Las Vegas and the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City.

But when Mr. Wynn went up against the tiny Mashantucket Pequot Indian tribe, the old alchemy just wasn't there. The Pequots not only beat Mr. Wynn at his own gambling game, but they also cut a multi-million-dollar deal with the state of Connecticut to help ease a massive state budget deficit.

Like other Indian tribes across the country, the Pequots took advantage of a 1988 federal law to establish the Foxwoods hotel and casino complex on tribal land off I-95, hard by the U.S. submarine base at Groton and just a chip shot away from popular resort towns of Mystic and Stonington.

Mr. Wynn saw the state's approval of Foxwoods as an opportunity to expand his casino empire into the Northeast. After extensive lobbying, Mr. Wynn's proposal was finally brought to the floor of the General Assembly in Hartford, where it was expected to win approval.

But in the final hours before the vote, the Pequots made Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. an offer he couldn't refuse: As long as they retained the exclusive rights to casino gambling in Connecticut, the Pequots would generate $100 million a year for the state. To seal the deal, the Pequots made a cash deposit of $100 million. A rival Indian tribe in nearby Rhode Island is attempting to replicate the Pequots' success.

Now the Piscataway Indians of Maryland are the latest group hoping to cash in on the federal law that permits gambling on Indian land. The confederation of Piscataways, claiming to represent 5,000 to 7,000 tribal descendants, is hoping to win eventual state approval to build a gambling and resort complex in populous Southern Maryland. Under consideration are sites in Prince George's and Charles counties.

The Piscataways' proposal followed by a day an executive order by Gov. William Donald Schaefer creating a 17-member task force that is to do a quicky investigation of all forms of gambling in Maryland and report back in two months. One thing the governor wants the panel to look at is slot-machine gambling on the Eastern Shore, which Mr. Schaefer supported to fulfill a campaign pledge but which is now plagued with reports of irregularities.

The fine print in the order, though, goes beyond one-armed bandits. The order also instructs the study group to assess "the potential of realizing state revenues through taxation of gambling proceeds" and to "explore mechanisms for collecting revenues from the gambling industry."

Just the kind of deal that caught Governor Weicker's fancy. Could it happen in Maryland the way it happened in Connecticut?

Governor Schaefer is reluctant to venture further into gambling for fear of being labeled the "gambling governor." Most of the candidates to succeed him are opposed to the expansion of gambling. But Mr. Schaefer's approved virtually every new game that's been proposed, all the while nagging the Maryland State Lottery to crank out more revenue.

Maryland and Connecticut resemble each other in character and size. They're both water-line states with mountain ranges to the west. Both have rusting cities with heavy ethnic populations beside wealthy commuter suburbs. When it comes to gambling, too, one can match the other virtually game for game.

Both states have more flavors of gambling than Baskin-Robbins has ice cream. (The exceptions may be jai alai in Connecticut and tip jars in Maryland.) The Pequots have casinos with slots, just as the Eastern Shore's fraternal organizations offer the one-armed bandits as a diversion on nickel-beer night. Connecticut has horse racing as well as a state lottery, and the Pequots also offer bingo for all of those little old ladies from the sodalities and garden clubs. And as every Catholic knows, bingo feeds the collection baskets in both states.

Maryland, though, sanctions casino nights in Prince George's, race tracks, off-track betting parlors, the state lottery, keno, commercial bingo in Anne Arundel County and gambling on NTC cruise ships (which has recently been allowed while the ships are in the Chesapeake Bay).

While Maryland's race tracks are themselves hurting, their owners are pushing for legalized video poker machines to provide faster action for their patrons as well as to attract new bettors.

What's happened at Foxwoods, however, is that an entire side industry has blossomed around the hotel and gambling complex. Along with the $50 million bet at Foxwoods every month come the small bettors and the high rollers who are looking for good food and sweet deals.

Foxwoods is a monument to kitsch. On what was pristine forestland, there are now restaurants, pizza parlors, malls and that staple of New England, factory outlets. And Foxwoods itself employs about 10,000 people in what has become a major economic development enterprise in this distressed blue-collar industrial area.

Foxwoods' parking lots accommodate up to 30,000 cars, and shuttle buses haul patrons to the main casino. Foxwoods is also planning an expansion that includes two more hotels, more restaurants and specialty shops, a shopping mall, three theaters, a 1,500-seat showroom, two golf courses, a Chinese theme park, a monorail system, campgrounds, a heliport, a lake with boating facilities and more.

Yet despite the economic boost to the area, a survey published in The Day, New London's daily newspaper, showed that residents in surrounding towns are about equally divided on the gambling complex.

So who knows what's next? Following the lead of the Piscataways, maybe the Lumbee Indians will claim Lombard Street as tribal land and ask to build a casino in East Baltimore next to Obrycki's.

Frank DeFilippo writes a column on Maryland politics.

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