When the Pequots were rich

A recent posting by Lori Potter, a Mashantucket Pequot who blogs about things on the reservation, got me reminiscing, too, about the heady days at Foxwoods Resort Casino.

Potter wrote about looking out the windows of the high rollers suite - "I gently pressed my forehead against the panoramic eighth floor lounge window to observe the moonlit roads below" - to see a long line of traffic coming up Route 2.

I presume she was describing the high rollers suite in the original hotel tower at Foxwoods, when it opened in 1993, back when the casino was building and growing constantly.

I also have a vivid memory of that same scene, watching an endless stream of car headlights heading up Route 2, toward the new casino in the woods. Potter is right. It was remarkable to think of all those people driving into Ledyard.

My visit to the new eighth-floor lounge was to interview Tribal Chairman Richard "Skip" Hayward, the dealmaker who had touched the match to the Foxwoods money machine, then burning very brightly.

When I met with him, Hayward had installed himself in one of three lavish new suites on the eighth floor of the new hotel. The Lim family of Malaysia, the money behind the Foxwoods start-up, was in the second.

The third was reserved for Frank Sinatra, who was scheduled to christen the new Fox Theater. Inside Sinatra's cherry-paneled suite was a bowl of Tootsie Rolls, his favorite candy, a bottle of Jack Daniel's and a bronze eagle, a welcome gift from the Pequots.

Hayward, who had a reputation as a partier, was pleased to be able to get in some late night schmoozing with Sinatra.

The cars kept coming up Route 2 that night. The casino gaming floors were packed. Searchlights installed in the parking lots crisscrossed the dark Ledyard sky.

It was the start of the golden years, a time when Hayward was using the sudden success of Foxwoods to plan all kinds of outrageous things: a fleet of high-speed ferries to bring gamblers from New York, monorails, amusement parks with indoor skiing and surfing, a magnetic levitation train to Boston, and more and more slot machines.

And Frank Sinatra was booked to sing Foxwoods into the big leagues.

A cradle-to-grave Social Security system, offering everything from free tuition to generous stipends, was created on the reservation.

It looked like it was going to go on forever.

"Foxwoods' annual revenue quickly soared well above one billion dollars," Potter wrote in her recent blog post. "Its success was due to the perfect combination of timing and location."

Indeed, the ball kept rolling around the outer rim of the wheel for years to come.

The gambling money kept rolling in.

So did the borrowed money for expansion.

Then Frank Sinatra died. Hayward lost the chairmanship of the tribe and dropped out of sight.

But the borrowing and the building continued.

And then the music stopped.

The stipend spigot to tribal members has been shut off. Creditors should expect to write down a lot of what they are owed.

"We have six layers of creditors and, within each layer, 20 to 40 institutions," Scott Butera, Foxwoods' current chief executive, recently told the New York Times. "It's unbelievable. What you have to do is convince them that $2.3 billion of debt is not worth $2.3 billion. And it's not. Our junior debt was trading at 5 cents on the dollar.

"So you want to come to a place where even though the lenders are getting a haircut on the face value, they know they're getting an incredible lift on what it's actually worth. That's the magic."

Actually, it seems like a lot of the magic is gone.

This is the opinion of David Collins

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