Roll of Dice Unearths Old Conflicts

The huge success of the Indian-run Foxwoods casino has forced Connecticut communities to face issues of change

GONE are the days when Ledyard was a pastoral town of 15,000 in the southeastern part of the state. The huge Foxwoods gambling casino built here on the reservation by the small Mashantucket Pequot tribe three years ago is now one of the most financially successful casinos in the nation. Close to $1.8 million a day in gross revenues are realized by the Pequots.

But such phenomenal revenues, and a proposed tribal expansion onto annexed land, has been the flint that has sparked a host of political and jurisdictional conflicts between native Americans and local people.

Many of the conflicts have the same historical root: unresolved Indian issues reaching back 200 years or more when broken treaties deprived tribes of land and opportunities.

The Pequots, like dozens of other tribes involved in gambling across the United States, have now gained enough power and resources to improve and assert themselves as never before in American history.

What this means to Ledyard, and the nearby smaller communities of Preston City and North Stonington, is a measure of political confusion, anger, and some tangible economic pluses - all adding up to communities undergoing profound changes.

The issues in Ledyard are expected to ripple out to other communities as the Mohegans in Connecticut and the Narragansetts in Rhode Island move closer to state approvals for building casinos. And three other Connecticut tribes are planning a $300 million theme park, hotel, and bingo complex in the city of Bridgeport.

Elected officials and agencies of federal and state government are involved in discussions to guide the changes for better or worse.

``The federal government likes to tell the tribes they are sovereign nations,'' says Ledyard resident Cindy Brewster, ``but it's a trust relationship with the federal government pulling the strings. And it needs to be redefined because it's a whole new ballgame now.

``We need to know what it means when the tribe has their own constitution, but all of us live under the US Constitution,'' she says. ``What does it mean to non-Indians when Indians have different rights than we do? And here we are mixed together coexisting under totally different rules.''

It is the clash of these different rules that's being heard throughout the region. Ms. Brewster is a spokesperson for Residents Against Annexation, a group opposed to Pequot annexation of 247 undeveloped acres across from the casino. ``The towns rezoned that land from residential to resort so the taxes would go up,'' she says, ``and the Indians filed a suit against us.''

Federal law gives tribes the right to seek land and convert it to trust land to bolster economic self-sufficiency. Even though Pequots offered to pay local towns ``impact aid,'' similar to taxes totaling $15 million, tribes are exempt from paying taxes on trust land.

The annexed land, mainly intended for parking, would also be exempt from local or state land-use regulation, a major concern to towns. The Bureau of Indian Affairs can approve or deny the annexation.

Interior secretary intervenes

But Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, aware of the potential for all conflicts between the tribe and locals ending up in the courts, has intervened in the dispute. The tribe, municipal governments, and their lawyers have little communication at this point. At Mr. Babbitt's urging, both sides have agreed to sit down with a mediator to work out a solution.

Of equal concern to the local communities is the increase in traffic along rural highways, as tens of thousands of gamblers head for the casino. ``On two-lane Route 2,'' says William Haase, planning director for Ledyard, ``the traffic load was about 7,600 cars a day prior to 1992, and on a recent peak weekend, it reached 25,000 cars.'' Weekend traffic jams are common now. On a recent weekend, some 40,000 people jammed the casino.

Local police calls have increased

In addition, total calls to the Ledyard Police Department jumped from 4,010 in fiscal year 1992 to 12,401 for the first nine months of fiscal 1993. ``The increase is directly related to the presence of the casino,'' Mr. Haase says.

Moreover, he says the total impact created by the casino ``means we have to redefine the way government does business because of this array of new problems. We'll have to come to conclusions in a brand new way.''

``I think a lot of us are wishing we could move,'' says Brewster. ``I'm faced with the prospect of two casinos being close to my house.''

For many local residents, issues of traffic congestion, regional planning, the community tax base, and volunteer firemen and ambulance service being overworked are outweighed by the fact that the casino has created 8,000 new jobs and is now the largest employer in the region.

``It's a paycheck every week,'' says a new casino employee seated in a coffee shop in Ledyard. ``My wife has worked there for a year, and they offer the best benefits possible. I say, let 'em annex the land across from the casino. The Indians are here to stay, so we have to move over and get ready.''

For Diane Contino, a real estate agent, the presence of the casino has helped nearly double her sales.

``In 1992, I sold around 85 properties,'' she says, ``and in 1993, I sold 124. A lot of people come here and rent for a while, then they realize this is a safe and beautiful community, so they want to buy.''

For Haase and others, the local communities, as a whole, have not benefited economically from the casino.

``The casino benefits have been internalized,'' he says. ``Restaurants, hotels, shops - you don't have to leave the casino. It's like a mall. There has been no corresponding business growth off the reservation. It's hard for a small local business to go head-to-head with a casino that subsidizes costs with gaming revenue.''

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