“You have got to be kidding me,” I muttered incredulously. Leaning forward with eyes wide open, I gently pressed my forehead against the panoramic eighth floor lounge window to observe the moonlit roads below.
Grinning broadly, my friend Valerie playfully nudged at me. “Oh don’t you dare complain about it!” Val was amused at my reaction, but truthfully, we were both equally astonished by what we saw.
It was an enormous traffic jam, an endless river of bumper-to-bumper headlights extending as far as the eye could see. Cars, busses and limousines poured down Route 2 into the resort’s parking lot as thousands arrived to experience the Foxwoods phenomenon. I visited casinos in Reno and Lake Tahoe once or twice, years before I moved to Connecticut, but nothing prepared me for Foxwoods Resort Casino. The energy was electric with anticipation as fifty thousand daily visitors flocked in from around the world. People wanted to experience the exciting new place. Casino floors were packed as gamblers flooded in for a chance to try their luck, and many waited two or three deep in line behind slot machines for their turn at the handles. It was unbelievable.
A seemingly recession-proof economic engine, Foxwoods’ annual revenue quickly soared well above one billion dollars. It’s success was due to the perfect combination of timing and location. A gambling bug bit New England on a tiny forgotten Indian reservation that just happened to be located in the center of the highly populated region between New York City and Boston. But only a few years earlier, the Foxwoods vision almost never happened. As a vague business concept conceived in the minds of a few empty-pocketed tribal visionaries, most potential investors laughed dismissively at the idea. No fewer than ten banks turned down the tribe’s construction loan requests, as it was unclear if a casino on an Indian reservation would ever prove successful. But a unique window of opportunity was about to swing wide open. In one chance meeting with savvy Malaysian billionaire investor Tan Sri Lim Goh Tong, everything suddenly shifted. With the billionaire’s modest startup investment and lucrative development contract, a new foundation was set and the Pequots quickly broke ground to build the one business destined to change their lives forever.
Nothing like this had ever been done before. The Mashantucket Pequots set a new precedent, not only for New England, but for tribes throughout North America. Foxwoods Resort Casino was the first gaming enterprise of its size and scope ever developed on an Indian reservation, rivaling every traditional design concept. Rather than mimicking the flashy neon glitz and enclosed, boxy concrete palaces of Las Vegas and Atlantic City, Foxwoods was the first casino designed with gaming floors separate from hotel lobbies and public retail concourses. Absent were the racy, scantily-clad showgirl burlesque venues common to casinos out west. It was never supposed to be about Vegas. It was about heritage, elegance, and originality as uniquely modern, overarching themes. Foxwoods was intended as the means by which the history and culture of a people nearly driven extinct could be featured and celebrated. And with reservation land as the tribe’s most precious treasure, the resort’s panoramic windows showcased the Mashantucket woods in all of its quaint, seasonal splendor.
Originally planned as a limited daily operation, the doors of Foxwoods never closed upon opening to the public on February 17, 1992. In those early days, casino employees were frazzled, frantically racing about to manage the service needs for thousands of visitors. Despite the overwhelming learning curve to adjust to and master the needs of an unfamiliar industry, most employees seemed satisfied with the stability of their careers. Employee benefits were second to none, with generous bonuses, healthcare, 401-K, free meals, annual parties and picnics, free training, college tuition reimbursement, gym memberships, free transportation and a wide variety of steep discounts and complimentary tickets for regional tourist attractions and special events.
A new and unique spotlight of attention brightly enveloped the Mashantucket Pequots, an experience foreign to us since the time of European contact. As the leaders of one of the smallest tribes in North America owning the largest, most successful casino in the western hemisphere, the seven Mashantucket Pequot tribal council members became an intriguing novelty in the public eye. With appearances on local and national television news programs and newspaper interviews, some council members relished in all the attention while others remained hesitant and suspicious, viciously guarding their privacy. Each was flooded with opportunities beyond his or her wildest imagination. Some received invitations to meet celebrities, global business leaders, Hollywood filmmakers, governors, heads-of-state and even European royalty. Every tribal meeting buzzed with excitement over the reports of new experiences, potential business opportunities, and matter-of-fact listing of who got to meet whom the previous month. It was enchanting to watch and even more easy to believe, at that time, that we would continue to be successful for the rest of our lives.
# # #
Were you around when Foxwoods first opened? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.