Tribal Chairman 'Skip' Hayward is back!

I have long thought of Richard "Skip" Hayward as our own casino mogul recluse, maybe sitting in a darkened room in some high-rise somewhere, his fingernails, toenails and beard grown long, like Howard Hughes.

OK, so that may be unfair.

But, honestly, what were we to make of the strange disappearance of Hayward, who dropped out of the public spotlight after he walked away from tribal affairs more than a decade ago, after losing the chairmanship.

After all, this is the tribal leader hailed as a visionary who not only rebuilt his tribe and resettled its reservation but changed the economic order of southeastern Connecticut. You could argue that he was at the center of an economic force as transformative here as whaling and submarine building.

During his tenure, the Mashantucket Pequots presided over an expanding Oz that grew, topsy-turvy, under unlikely teal and purple metal roofs, into the largest casino in the world, bigger even than anything in Las Vegas or Atlantic City.

Seasoned gamblers flocked to New England's first legal casino. Hotel towers went up. The elderly from all over the Northeast were bused in every day, seated at slot machines where they could gamble away Social Security checks, then bused home, after a visit to the buffet.

Frank Sinatra sang at the opening of the first Foxwoods Resort Casino. The mob came calling to kick the tires, too. The entertainment executive who booked Sinatra later resigned as state regulators probed alleged ties to organized crime.

Hayward was inducted last year into the American Gaming Hall of Fame, in absentia.

This weekend, after it gives a freshly unveiled Hayward a chance to address the media, the tribe will celebrate the $4 billion it has paid the state since the slot machines were first fired up. Gov. Dannel Malloy is scheduled to turn up for this hats-off moment.

The tribe suggests the weekend events might be the start of a more public presence for its former chairman.

I am not sure whether I think of Hayward as a visionary or a guy in the right place at the right time.

After all, the tribe's bid to reclaim its reservation, gain federal recognition and ultimately open a casino came on the heels of the Red Power movement, which helped empower American Indians all over the country.

Hayward first aligned his tribe with a clever attorney from Maine who helped coax Congress into a recognition/land settlement deal in return for the release of tribal land claims against property owners.

Then Hayward, whose business experience before returning to the reservation to reclaim his grandmother's legacy was running a clam shack in Mystic, found G. Michael Brown, a New Jersey lawyer and international gambling consultant who should get much of the credit for launching the Foxwoods rocket.

Brown, who also had represented a wealthy, casino-owning Malaysian family, went to work for the Pequots, charged with finding a lender for the new casino. Brown said no banks would touch it, but the Malaysians would.

The Brown-brokered deal gave the Malaysians an inordinately profitable loan, granting them almost 10 percent off the top of the new Pequot casino revenues, a big long-term revenue stream that only recently just ended.

Brown was also the apparent mastermind of the deal with former Gov. Lowell Weicker, giving the tribe permission for slot machines in return for paying 25 percent of the revenue to the state. That was the rocket fuse.

Those were the good old days, before Hayward's successor overbuilt and overborrowed, as competition grew and slot revenues began charting in the opposite direction.

Who knows what will happen to the Oz that Hayward built, as the tribe now braces for competition from two big Vegas giants opening soon in Massachusetts. Lenders probably will be asked to take another haircut. The tribe hardly has the credit now to get good terms on a used car.

A lot of Hayward's vision — magnetic levitation trains to Boston, a reservation monorail, fast ferries to New York City, an indoor beach — never happened. But an awful lot did.

Congratulations to him on the Lifetime Achievement Award he will be given Saturday, the first awarded by the tribe. He earned it.

Surely a lot of people will be glad to see him again, at a seat of honor, as if the good times are back.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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