How far the Mashantuckets have fallen

I remember well the day in February 1992 when Foxwoods Resort Casino first opened its doors, planning to close the next morning at 2 a.m.

The parking lots filled fast, and people began leaving their cars in muddy fields along Route 2, walking in the sleety rain along the side of the highway, a new pilgrimage through rural eastern Connecticut.

I found the president of the new casino that day in his office, hosting a giddy circle of managers who were watching closed-circuit television images of the count room, where money, lots of it, was literally pouring in.

They never did close that night and haven't since.

And yet the news last week that the Mashantucket Pequots are starting to unload some of the significant land holdings amassed during the heady years after that successful opening made me think of the lofty heights to which the tribe once aspired.

Among some of the developments that were under serious consideration, as the tribe enjoyed its monopoly on casino gambling in the Northeast, included a Six Flags amusement park, a Chinese theme park, including a replica of the Great Wall running along a ridge in North Stonington, an indoor ski slope and an enclosed water park, with a beach and waves, to be called Pequot Island.

The tribe began building fast ferries in New London and finished two of them, part of a planned fleet that was supposed to connect New York and Boston to southeastern Connecticut by water.

Former Chairman Richard "Skip" Hayward began planning and lobbying for federal participation in a model $100 million magnetic levitation train project that would link the reservation, first to Interstate 95 and Norwich and later to T.F. Green Airport in Rhode Island.

Once on the resort grounds, visitors were supposed to switch to a monorail, a system that progressed so far in planning that footings for the first leg were actually built.

To accommodate all the planned growth, the tribe began buying land, big tracts, all over the region, but with a concentration around the existing reservation. They ended up owning a large swath along both sides of I-95 in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

"The land was once ours. We are going to buy it back," former tribal Chairman Kenneth Reels said at the time.

At the same time the tribe was buying land, often secretly in the names of straw buyers, they also unveiled a plan to create a much larger reservation, up to 7,000 acres in all, land to be held in trust by the federal government, outside the reach of local planning and zoning control and taxation.

So began what became known as the annexation war with local towns, one the tribe eventually lost, with rulings that the reservation would not expand in size and the towns would not shrink.

But of course it was the spread of gambling - to Pennsylvania, New York, Rhode Island and, soon, Massachusetts - that burst the bubble.

The recent sale of 371 acres of land on Wintechog Hill Road in North Stonington, for $1.25 million, was a good example of how far the tribe has fallen.

They paid $3.6 million for the land, chump change back when the money was still flowing into the Foxwoods count room at an astounding pace. They ended up selling it for what a lucky high roller might win back from the house on a single night in one of the tribe's gilded gaming halls.

Clearly, the day of planning for a gambling-based Disney North are over. And the tribe needs every penny to feed the lending beast that is now owed $1.7 billion.

Back in 1997, when it still looked like the music would never stop on the reservation, a chamber of commerce executive praised the tribe for its empire building, development of a resort that, he suggested, was smart economic diversification.

"I think they recognize that sooner or later the bubble of casino gambling has got to pop," the chamber executive said. "By creating a resort with golf courses, the museum, all of that will help them ride through the next downturn that occurs, whether it's a national recession or just a downturn in gambling."

We've seen the big recession and downturn in gambling.

The resort development that did occur has indeed probably helped slow the free fall.

But when will the fall stop?

What's next, after selling surplus land at a bargain?

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

Twitter: @davidcollinsct

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