Slots, RV park avenge war, smallpox

The Pequots, once the dominant Native American tribe in eastern Connecticut, were just about exterminated by colonialists more than 350 years ago. A 1663 smallpox epidemic wiped out as much as 80% of a population estimated at 16,000. A five-year war that began the following year killed off half of the survivors, with the balance scattered so far and wide that a Pequot reservation created in 1666–the country’s first–had only 13 residents recorded in the 1910 U.S. census.

How times have changed!

Following creation of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe in 1975 by a handful of the tribe’s descendants, the federal government in 1983 resolved a legal claim that some of the reservation land had been stolen by formally recognizing the tribe as a sovereign entity. Three years later, the Pequots–empowered by that sovereign status–opened a bingo hall, and over the next six years generated enough income to build a casino. And then they built a lot of other stuff, and still more stuff–so much, in fact, that by 2012 they were teetering on the edge of insolvency because of the $2 billion debt they had accumulated along the way.

Again: how times have changed!

This year, celebrating its 30th anniversary, Foxwoods is the largest resort casino in the Northeast, its 340,000 square feet of casino floor space more than doubling that of its largest Atlantic City rival, the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa. Located in the sweet-spot halfway between Boston and New York City, it pulls in almost 13 million visitors a year, who come not only for the gambling but for the reservation’s 80-store Tanger Outlet Mall, three hotels, two theaters, five event spaces, a couple of spas and a golf course.

But–as they say–that’s not all! The tribe announced this week that it has sealed a deal with Chicago-based Great Wolf Lodge to build a resort, adjacent to the casino, that will include 550 hotel rooms, a 90,000-square-foot indoor water park, an outdoor pool, a family play area and an interactive adventure park. The $300 million facility is slated to open in 2024 and will “redefine what being a resort destination means,” according to Foxwoods president Jason Guyot.

And then, of course, there’s the ongoing effort by Blue Water Development Corp. to build a $25 million RV resort on 65 acres that belong to the tribe, midway between the casino and the hamlet of Preston, population 4,788. The RV resort has met vocal opposition from local residents, partly because it abuts a pond that they contend is environmentally fragile, partly because it pushes the whole Foxwoods complex deeper into an otherwise rural community. A series of planning and zoning commission hearings and meetings, as well as parallel review by the state’s Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission, are ongoing and have resulted in some modifications, but this still is no minor project: 280 campsites, a welcome center, three bathhouses and a swimming pool, as well as tennis, volleyball, squash and bocce courts.

Final decisions on the RV park are expected in April, and approval seems likely. As summarized in a recent New York Post article, “Big money talks, so nature walks: along with restaurant and hotel taxes, and employment, Foxwoods added more than $4 billion in slot revenue to state coffers over three decades,” which buys an awful lot of influence.

Or payback, 450 years after the fact, using the one weapon that the white man understands best. Forget the guns and germs; it’s greenbacks that win the day.

Next post: Lost in the shuffle of recent history is the fact that the Pequots used a chunk of early gambling revenue to build a $193 million museum, near but behind the casino, dedicated to eastern North American tribes. A quarter-of-a-century later, this nod to heritage attracts fewer visitors in a year than the casino averages per day. Perhaps the Pequots could borrow a leaf from the new Hawaiian playbook, where native peoples are rethinking tourism?

Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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