Rhode Island Tribe Wants Casino To Help Reduce High Jobless Rate

Governor leads charge against the controversial gambling proposal

LIKE many states embroiled in native American land disputes, Rhode Island is in the midst of a bitter controversy over a proposed Indian gambling casino.

Though this state already has a lottery, video poker, greyhound racing, keno, off-track betting, and jai alai, Rhode Islanders are divided over the $50 million casino proposed by the Narragansett tribe here. It is now stalled in a legal battle with the state.

As this small New England state struggles to get beyond its reputation as a haven for political corruption, residents are torn over what the casino might bring: the promise of a revitalized economy vs. the threat of increased crime.

Leading the anti-casino crusade is Gov. Bruce Sundlun (D) who, along with other state lawmakers, has launched an aggressive campaign including a lawsuit and pending state anti-gambling legislation. Currently, Rhode Island law does not allow casino gambling.

Meanwhile, the tribe, with the help of Atlantic City, N.J.-based Capital Gaming International, has responded with its own "public information" campaign. Saturating residents with TV, radio, and newspaper advertisements, the tribe promises Rhode Islanders 2,500 permanent jobs with salaries averaging $24,000 and 550 to 600 construction jobs.

Gambling proponents argue that the casino will not only bring jobs, but also stimulate business, and improve the lackluster economy. Opponents say the casino will attract organized crime, prostitution, and set a precedent for building more casinos.

"We see casinos as a threat to the social fabric, to the political fabric, to the economic fabric of the community," says Howard Kay, spokesman for Rhode Island Alliance Against Casino Gambling.

Yet the tribe has drummed up a good deal of support. Last month, the Narragansetts held two job fairs in Providence and Galilee that drew thousands of people.

Included with job-application packages were pre-written, stamped, and addressed postcards. Applicants were urged to send the cards to Rhode Island lawmakers, asking them to support the casino.

Lawrence Ollivierre, Narragansett tribe real estate director, says revenue generated from the casino would help the tribe provide for its people and relieve the federal tax burden. In recent years, Indian tribes have received limited amounts of money from federal health, education, and welfare programs, he says.

"We find ourselves at the bottom end of the stick in terms of allocations, as does everyone else," he says. "There has to be ways to make tribes self-sufficient economically." The tribe has a 60 percent unemployment rate.

The tribe announced last year that it would build the casino; the state filed suit. Last March, a state court ruled that the Indian Gaming Law of 1988 allows the tribe to proceed with the casino. But the state appealed the decision, which is now pending at the First United States Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. A decision is not expected until at least the fall.

Mr. Sundlun argues that a 1978 settlement, in which the Narragansetts were granted 1,800 acres of tribal land, requires the tribe to follow Rhode Island law, which excludes casinos.

But the Indians claim that since the state allows Las Vegas nights - small-stakes betting for charitable groups - they should be permitted to build casinos under the Indian Gaming Law. The law, tribes say, allows for replication of any kind of gambling now permitted in the state. "The Narragansetts aren't bringing gambling to Rhode Island. There has already been a proliferation of it in the state," says Lloyd (Running Wolf) Wilcox, a tribal leader.

He and others point to the Foxwoods High Stakes Bingo and Casino operated by the Mashantucket Pequot Indian tribe in Ledyard, Conn. It is considered one of the nation's most successful casinos. In Massachusetts, Wampanoag Indians on Martha's Vineyard also want to open a casino.

Meanwhile, in Rhode Island's General Assembly, several anti-gambling bills are pending that will be acted on before the legislature adjourns in a few weeks. One proposal that stands a good chance of passage is a constitutional amendment requiring majorities in state and local referendums before casinos can be built.

State Rep. Rodney Driver (D) says: "This state is so small, if you have a casino in one place you can get to it in 45 minutes from anywhere. It's almost in everybody's backyard."

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