By Diane Church
With the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes seeking to build casinos in north central Connecticut, a new part of the state may soon experience issues that are now familiar to those in the southeastern region.
Both tribes want to build new casinos along the Interstate 91 and 84 corridors north of Hartford to compete with the MGM Casino now under construction in Springfield, Mass.
Reactions have been mixed. Officials in Windsor, Suffield and Enfield have said they don't want casinos. East Hartford has said it would welcome a casino at the former Showcase Cinemas on Silver Lane, which sits alongside I-84 and has been abandoned for years. Meanwhile, Bradley International Airport has been suggested as a possible location.
Robert Steele, a business executive, former U.S. Congressman and son of radio legend Bob Steele, wants area residents to know about how casino gambling can quickly change a community. He spoke about the issue on April 28 at a Suffield Women's Club meeting at the Suffield Senior Center. Steele lived in southeastern Connecticut and watched the developments firsthand, he said, coming to the conclusion that the casinos deal their communities a losing hand on many fronts.
"It started in 1988 when Congress passed the Indian Gaming Act," Steele said. "This allowed federally recognized tribes to start casinos to support themselves."
The Mashantucket Pequots, who received federal recognition in 1983, were the first to open a casino in 1992. Then another tribe, the Mohegans, received recognition in 1994 and opened their casino two years later.
Prior to that, Steele said, the only states that allowed legalized slot machines and table games were Nevada and New Jersey. Gamblers, he said, were affluent folks who usually visited the casinos occasionally.
Now 40 states have a combined total of more than 1,000 casinos. With this competition, the stakes have been raised. Casinos now aim for a more diverse audience while still keeping up their glittery, high-class façade, Steele said. Some people are lured into gambling addiction, hooked on the thrill and the promise that the next game could yield a jackpot.
Steele said that it's a myth that casinos contribute to the local economy by bringing in more customers. He said a friend of his who had a restaurant in New London County thought the casinos would increase his business. Instead, they had the opposite effect and the restaurant closed after a couple of years.
Steele said people go to the casino, eat at the casino, stay overnight in the casino hotel, attend events at the casino and drive home after fueling up at the tribal-owned gas station.
Although casinos bring in jobs, Steele said they are usually low-skilled, low-paying jobs. To supplant their workforce, casinos bring in immigrants who crowd into houses, often living in substandard conditions, he said.
In recent years, the tribes have watched the recession and new gambling operations in the area take away their casino monopoly and the profits that went with it. New York opened nine racetrack casinos and eight Indian casinos and has four more casinos planned or proposed. Slots parlors have opened in Rhode Island. Now the latest competitor, the MGM Casino, is poised to take customers from the Boston area.
When the casinos opened, the tribes agreed to give 25 percent of their slot machine revenue to the state in exchange for a monopoly on slot machines. Now that the state is hooked on that money, officials have been nervously watching their cut dwindle along with casino profits. They are hoping, along with the tribes, to increase casino revenue, so the proposed new casinos are getting little opposition from them, Steele said.
Steele wrote a book, "The Curse," to inform people about what happens when a casino comes to town. The work of historical fiction chronicles a fictional family dealing with some of the very real problems the casinos caused in southeast Connecticut. It starts with fictional character Ethan Williams, fighting in the real Pequot War. His wife is killed in the war, but he settles in the area and starts a farm.
Fast forward some 350 years to the late 1980s, and one of Williams' descendants, Josh Williams, moves home and wants to save the family farm in the fictional town of Sheffield. The Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegans soon built their casinos nearby, causing the problems Steele spoke about.
Then a third tribe, the "Northern Pequots," seek federal recognition so they can build a casino near the farm. This is fact-based. There actually was a tribe called the Eastern Pequots that tried unsuccessfully to get federal recognition in the 1990s so they could build a casino in the area.
Steele said he plans to speak in Windsor Locks, but nothing has been scheduled yet. His schedule of public appearances can be seen at http://www.rhsteele.com.
"If a casino comes to your town, you will not recognize your community," he said. "The pressure for more casinos is a daunting prospect for those of us who think we have enough."