A few years ago, one of our tribal council members began to wear a medicine pouch around his neck.
(For those who don’t know what a medicine pouch is, it’s a small, hand-made deerskin sack containing items representing prayers for people or places of extraordinary meaning and value. The pouch usually contains sacred herbs, heirloom tobacco, tiny objects of special significance or any combination of these.)
Here’s his reason for wearing the medicine pouch:
“Our tribe has lost its spirit. I’m wearing this pouch in prayer, hoping the spirit one day returns to us.”
He, too, remembered the days when the tribe and its enterprises were filled with life and overwhelmed by success. He silently mourned the loss of this life force, hoping his ceremonial pouch would somehow usher in a remedy to what, I believe, can only be understood through an honest, in-depth, soul-searching review of where and how things went wrong for us.
Since the mid nineties, my tribe has slowly but surely descended down a long slippery slope, pretty far from where we originally planned to be. So how did we get so far off track that the sobering absence of wellbeing has now become utterly unavoidable?
It’s simple really. We’ve lost our vision.
Any organization or community lacking the awareness of a long-term vision will ultimately fail to succeed. And a lost vision has a way of triggering a cataclysmic effect of one bad decision after another. We can begin to remedy this phenomenon one of two ways: first, we ought to understand how we wandered off the correct path and away from the vision in the first place. Second, we should learn how to regain our focus, and prevent negative history from repeating.
I’ll begin by sharing six ways in which we wandered away from our economic development vision.
1. Changing casino leadership as often as we change the batteries in smoke detectors.
It doesn’t take the genius-level wit of an Oxford astrophysicist to understand that, if your organization runs through a lot of leaders in a relatively short amount of time, it should be red-flagged. This should be a sign alerting you that something somewhere along the line has gone terribly wrong. In eleven years, Foxwoods Resort Casino has seen not one, not two, not three…but EIGHT President CEO’s.
It began in the year 2000 with the flowering track-record of one Floyd “Bud” Celey, followed by political genius and executive team rockstar, William J. Sherlock. Next came former senior VP of finance John O’Brien, followed by Patricia Irvin (The only female on the list), succeeded by executive staff “interim” president Barry J. Cregan. Then our Malaysian investors swooped in to hand-pick their own upper-crusted English prodigy – Michael F. Speller, followed once again by casino magic man, William J. Sherlock – the remix. Lastly, we have the former Donald Trump financial guru and Tropicana casino “turn-around” expert, Scott Butera, hired in 2011.
Common sense tells us every leadership transition brings with it a reconfiguration in senior leadership and executive consultants, causing a ripple effect transforming the organization, little by little, farther away from its original state of being.
And the farther you get from original intent, the more you lose the soul of your organization. Or community. Or nation.
2. “Reinvent” the casino at least three times in less than ten years, and if we don’t finish a project, don’t explain why.
In 2007, the tribe voted to approve a general budget of approximately $100 million dollars, earmarked for reinventing casino concourse areas. These funds added the David Burke Prime restaurant and several luxury jewelry boutiques, reconfigured a couple of escalators, and approved the funding to develop elaborate retail, night life and dining venues throughout our existing concourse…
75% of which never actually happened.
3. “Thank you very much Sybil, but would you please let us speak with Marcus now?”
Yes folks, that’s right. I’m talking about schizophrenic marketing plans. If you want to lose the soul of an enterprise, simply go out of your way to re-educate the organization and its patrons who you are and what you are all about. Then do it again, but this time make it different. And then do it again.
We’ve gone from the original Wonder of It All – mind you, the one song gleefully memorized by no less than three generations of New Englanders – to the stark-raving madness of Lucky Leprechauns and the Wizard of Oz.
Next came the shoe-shined, polished buttoned, goose-stepping precision of a short-lived but militant 5-Star Service Standards campaign. (Not unlike an Anglican preparatory student body, dodging the yard-stick knuckle raps of a stiff-lipped, monocle-wearing school master.) Clearing our heads once again for a microsecond, we reverted back to nostalgia and initiated the nano-second-lived “Wonder of it All” remix.
Next came the abstracted “ALL” campaign – brought forward as one creative-yet-misguided hope to try and re-program three generations of patrons’s brains while attracting thousands more, yet sadly succeeded only in bringing visions of a certain brand of laundry detergent to everyone’s minds.
Last but not least is the current brainstorm of the moment: the painfully bland and ambiguously random two-dimensional face-card campaign (the ace, queen, king, jack, and joker), lacking any connection whatsoever to original Foxwoods imagery.
Who are we going to be this year, Kemosabe?
4. Revamp parts of our casinos so quickly that we tick off the OSHA guys.
This followed on the heels of a 2000-2003 capital spending investment of more than $100 million dollars, earmarked for improving the casino concourse space décor, including new tile flooring and revamped esthetics for the Great Cedar Casino. (You can tell where they began and ended by walking down the concourse and watching the floor design change from grey slate tiles to tan brick tiles, and then on to marble.)
Most of this project lacked tribal input, and ultimately needed to be re-revamped – yet again! – when it was discovered the original remodel was done so quickly it caused several critical structural problems in need of, *eh hem*…. “immediate improvement”.
5. Hyper-focus on a wildly idiotic interpretation of an old-school business development rule: If you want to make money you’ve gotta spend money.
Want to bail a community out of its spending frenzy while avoiding politically-alienating decisions such as forcing them to cut budgets? Here’s what you do:
- Spend millions of dollars on dozens of expansion models created by several casino design firms over a time period of about five years.
- Next, have your financiers manipulate your investment forecast projection numerology until everything appears exactly the way you want it on paper.
- Then make a bunch of pretty poster board pictures, cool concept videos, and several three-dimensional casino doll-house models made of foam, sticks, staples and glue.
- Tell the tribe things are getting critical because competition is coming, so they need to act now and not waste any more time. Tell them their return will be HUGE on the $700 million dollar investment if they simply press the “yes” button.
- A year or two later, get wooed, wined, dined, and hoodwinked into bed with a major casino and entertainment development group. Offer them the moon in a secret contract the tribe will never see, and call it:
The MGM Grand at Foxwoods.
6. Give away strategic pieces of reservation land in elaborate lease agreements, building more stuff by using other people’s money.
That’s right, rather than improving your existing one and a half miles of tired, vacant, disorganized retail concourse space, why not just build a brand new 85-store, three-hundred thousand square foot outlet mall around the exterior of the MGM Grand at Foxwoods.
Use only investors’ money for its development. Then agree to a 75-year lease contract.
But whatever you do, do not ask the tribe’s permission or show them specifically what those business deals entailed.
# # #
My dear people….enough is enough. It took more than a decade to get in the mess we are in now, and our problems won’t be solved overnight. But regardless, we need to agree to begin somewhere.
One way to begin regaining focus, get back on track and right the wrongs starts with our attitudes: We need to be willing to face what we did on the way to where we are. We need to own up to our own stinking domino-effect of bad decisions.
And most importantly, we – as a tribe – need to mentally revert back in time and understand why Foxwoods was built in the first place. We are a people in need of reconciliation. We need to know:
- What was the original vision?
- What was the purpose of economic development at Mashantucket?
- Who was involved in that development and why?
- Why was Foxwoods built the way it was built?
- How and why were specific phases developed in the order they were established?
- How can we resolve our issues enough to return to our roots and begin again stronger, for the sake of our children’s children?
The future of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe depends on it.