Pequot tribe profits from patience, and a casino Odds-on Favorite

April 16, 1995|By Barbara Shea | Barbara Shea,Newsday

Back in 1637, Connecticut's Pequot Indians were virtually annihilated by the local Colonists around Mystic in a massacre that lasted just one hour.

It took the patient Pequots more than three centuries to rebound, but there's little argument in the area today that the tribe now holds all the cards.

Most tourists quickly realize this too, because they usually learn about the so-called Pequot Wars as I did: in the tiny museum outside the high-stakes poker room in Foxwoods Resort Casino -- the tribe's multimillion-dollar enterprise that is by far the Nutmeg State's No. 1 tourist attraction.

In about a half-dozen years, the tribe -- today formally known as the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation -- parlayed a small bingo operation into what's billed as the largest and most profitable casino in the Western Hemisphere. The Foxwoods empire now draws about 40,000 visitors a day -- a figure that doubled in the past year. The property is 10 times the size it was when the casino opened three years ago, and expansion plans include a couple of grandiose theme parks plus the world's largest native-culture museum. The saga is all the more amazing when you consider that the tribe numbers only 318 members.

I drove through woods and pastures for about six miles after turning off Interstate 95 onto two-lane Route 2 a few miles from the area's two other chief attractions -- Mystic Seaport Museum and Mystic Marinelife Aquarium. Then, as I topped a hill, ahead of me loomed Oz. Rising out of a clearing surrounded by dense pines (Mashantucket means "the much-wooded land") was Foxwoods. Squads of traffic attendants and valets directed me past acres of parking lots already full at 10 a.m.

Its two lodging choices -- offering a total of nearly 600 rooms and suites -- often are filled far ahead, especially when there's a superstar headliner such as Frank Sinatra (tentatively scheduled return for his third and fourth stints in May and October). I checked into the less expensive Two Trees Inn, a modern Colonial-style motor lodge with a restaurant and indoor pool, about 400 yards from the casino (where the resort hotel and spa opened about a year ago). Then I strolled to action central.

The landscaped grounds smelled suitably piney -- until a bus belched by. About 200 motor coaches a day roll in on weekends. Free shuttle buses also continually circle the grounds to transport visitors from Two Trees Inn and distant parking lots.

Under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, Foxwoods has privileges other casinos don't enjoy. For example, it doesn't have to divulge profits or pay certain taxes, which has prompted Atlantic City casino mogul Donald Trump to lobby for curtailment of the statute. Foxwoods, however, voluntarily charges sales tax at its shops and restaurants and has otherwise been extremely generous with its windfall. Last year it turned over about $120 million for local tourism support, a figure projected to jump to $150 million this year.

Although the state has benefited royally from the tribe members' largess, it also stands to lose big if it authorizes any competing slot operations.

These political machinations, of course, are irrelevant to the bus-loads and car-loads of tourists who pull into Foxwoods 24 hours a day to try their luck at what still is, for now, the only game in town.

The casino may be the main attraction, but it's not the only one at Foxwoods, which is actually sort of a themed mall. Families stroll the shopping concourse that's designed to look like an early American street. You can buy everything from inexpensive souvenirs to designer clothes, including gorgeous beaded and fringed leather apparel, and American-Indian art.

Within earshot of the slot machines there's also a booming family entertainment center called Cinetropolis. Cinedrome 360 took me back 65 million years in 20-minute "Dinosaur Adventure," with beasts slowly emerging from the on-screen foliage surrounding viewers on all sides, then battling with each other (the film is one of several that alternate in the theater, which at night becomes a disco dance floor). Turbo Ride has seats that make you feel the jet lift-offs and speeding race cars you see in the action films on-screen. There's also a giant-screen theater, and the requisite video arcade. A state-of-the-art virtual-reality theater is in the works.

In fact, there's virtually no end to the Mashantuckets' visions for the future. Ground will soon be broken for a $135 million museum and research center scheduled to open in 1997, to preserve the history of the Mashantucket Pequots and other regional native cultures. There are also plans for a China theme park built in partnership with the Malaysian developers who financed Foxwoods and the Chinese government (proposed attractions include a section of the Great Wall). There's also talk of a Six Flags amusement park, which Foxwoods labels a "strong rumor."

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