In The Land Of The Jobless, The One Eyed Jack Is King

Valentine's Day, 1991, was a bummer for Michael Pipistrelli. That's when the 35-year-old was laid off from his job as a piping inspector at the Electric Boat Div. of General Dynamics Corp. in Groton, Conn., where he had worked for 16 years. At the time, unemployment was high and rising in this mostly rural corner of southeastern Connecticut, where defense and tourism dominate the economy. But Pipistrelli was unwilling to move to employment out of state.

Finally, after more than a year on the unemployment rolls, deep in debt, and facing the loss of his home, he took a job about as different from his trade as one can imagine: dealing blackjack in the new Foxwoods High Stakes Bingo & Casino operation on the Mashantucket Pequot Indian reservation in nearby Ledyard. "I feel quite fortunate," says Pipistrelli. "Benefits are not as good, but I have one of the better-paying jobs." His hourly pay is low--$3.75, compared with $12.02 last earned at Electric Boat--but his share of the tip pool takes it to about $13.50.

SHIPS TO CHIPS. Pipistrelli is one of hundreds of former defense workers in the area who have found employment at the new casino as dealers, security guards, cashiers, waitresses, and maintenance workers. Most were laid off by Electric Boat, United Nuclear (which built nuclear reactors), the U.S. Navy submarine base, or one of numerous other military suppliers in the area. Many of the former defense workers haven't fared as well as Pipistrelli, though. Gerald Donat, 45, a 20-year United Nuclear employee, says he took a 50% pay cut from his last job as a quality-control inspector. But Donat is excited "just to have a job, because the economy is so poor." Indeed, for many of the unemployed, the casino is the only game in town.

The new industry is taking over faster than anybody expected. Tour buses and cars from Connecticut and neighboring states crowd the parking lot, bringing 8,000 to 10,000 visitors on weekdays and as many as 18,000 on weekend days. The casino, which opened last February, already employs more than 2,800 local people. About 500 to 600 construction workers are busy building a huge, underground parking garage. And there's more to come. On July 15, Foxwoods announced plans for a $142 million expansion that will include a 330-room hotel, a second casino, more restaurants and retail shops, and three high-tech theaters. When complete, they will create another 1,800 full-time jobs. That's on top of the 1 million-plus additional hours of construction labor it will take to make Foxwoods a full resort and entertainment complex a year from now. Longer term, there will be a second hotel, golf courses, and a great deal more.

None of this, of course, was anticipated by the tribal officials who, until they hit on gambling, had tried everything from raising pigs to hydroponic farming to make the reservation self-sufficient. Foxwoods started with a high-stakes (up to $50,000) bingo hall in 1986, after the 250-member tribe obtained $900,000 in seed money from the federal government in 1983. Other tribes were thriving mn bingo operations, so the Pequots put up $1 million of their own and borrowed $3.9 million from the United Arab American Bank in New York, with a guarantee from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The casino was inspired by a new federal law in 1988 that allowed tribes to conduct any kind of gambling permitted in the states. In Connecticut, that included anything that was then offered at "Las Vegas Nights" fund-raisers for charity. The state tried to block the casino, saying it would draw organized crime. But after a legal wrangle, the state lost. Construction of the $70 million casino--financed largely by Kien Huat Realty of Malaysia--began in l990 and was completed in 200 days.

The tribe brought in seasoned casino managers from Atlantic City and Las Vegas and recruited more than 400 experienced casino workers to run the games and train tribe members and other locals. Foxwoods President Alfred J. Luciani, a veteran casino executive who formerly worked for Resorts International Inc. and the Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino, predicts that within two years, the complex will be adding a half-billion dollars a year to the local economy. Already, the annual payroll is $60 million, and the casino spends $30 million locally on food and supplies.

LAND CLAIMS. The kind of fun and games that draw folks to Foxwoods is a big change for this part of Connecticut. Nearby beaches and attractions such as Mystic Seaport & Aquarium have drawn tourists for decades, but this remains largely a rural area. Ledyard, about 15 miles north of New London, is 40 square miles of rolling, tree-covered hills, bordered on the west by the Thames River. Church suppers and softball, not gambling, are the preferred pastimes for its 15,000 residents.

Originally, all of Ledyard--named for Revolutionary War hero Colonel William Ledyard--was Pequot Indian territory. By the early 1970s, however, only two tribal members remained on the reservation, others having moved closer to jobs elsewhere. Threatened with the loss of their land, leaders formed a tribal government and, with aid from the Native American Rights Fund, sued to reclaim lands that had already been taken over by the state and non-Indians. With their 1,800 acres secured, they won federal funds for housing and began to look for a business that would keep tribal members on the land. Until gambling, nothing really worked. Now, everybody who wants to work at the casino is working or in training--about 80 of the 165 who live on the reservation.

Some, such as tribal chairman Richard "Skip" Hayward, gave up good paying jobs to help develop the reservation. In 1978, Hayward walked away from $1,000 a week as a welder at Electric Boat, moved into an $1,800 mobile home on the reservation, and supported himself by cutting cordwood. Another tribesman, John Holder, a former senior draftsman at Electric Boat, first ran the "sweat equity" housing program in 1979. Now, he spends his days dealing with booking agents for performers such as Kenny Rogers, Red Buttons, and David Brenner, all of whom have played Foxwoods.

PALM READERS. Predictably, a lot of people are discomfited by the idea of using gambling as an engine of economic growth--and by the type of people they imagine gambling attracts. The prostitutes and riffraff they feared have not materialized. But the gamblers are making their presence felt. One left a child at the local McDonald's for eight hours while he was at the tables. Another down-on-his-luck visitor sold his $300 leather jacket for $50 to mechanic John Smallridge at Mac's Garage. Later, he came back to sell his 1987 Jeep truck, worth $1,500, for $500. Says Smallridge: "I wish I had more like that." Over in nearby Preston, says First Selectman Parke Spicer, "I've had gypsies in here who wanted to set up a roadside palm-reading and pawnshop operation."

For displaced workers such as Pipistrelli, however, work at the casino is more than a lifeline--it's a dream come true. He had gambled previously in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. To him, "it was like a fantasy thing to be a dealer." Foxwoods, however, forbids its employees to gamble at the casino. Says Pipistrelli: "If I wasn't working here, I would be up here every day."

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