Situated in the woods of Ledyard, CT, Foxwoods calls itself the “Wonder of it All.” The state of Connecticut’s pact with the Mashantucket Pequots began casino gambling in New England. But, the real question is, How Did Foxwoods Get So Big?
The Past Dictates the Future
Their History – Did The Pequots Really Exist?
The Pequot War (1636-1638) — the first major conflict between colonists and an indigenous New England people — had a devastating impact on the Tribe. The Mohegan and the Narragansett tribes sided with the colonists to defeat the Pequots.
The Pequot War Mystic Massacre of 1637 was the final blow to the Pequot Nation. About 1,500 Pequot warriors were killed in battles or hunted down. Other Tribal members were captured and distributed as slaves or household servants.
In 1667, those of the tribe who survived was consigned to a small inland reservation, supervised by a state-appointed overseer. Over the centuries, most drifted away from the economically depressed reservation in search of work.
The Legacy of Two Sisters and Their Grandson
The original tribe was thought to be extinct for more than 300 years thereafter. In the early ’70s, the Pequots didn’t exist as far as the federal government was concerned. The land and remnants of the tribe were an after-thought gift by the state of Connecticut.
It was all just a small reservation. By 1970, two sisters, Elizabeth George Ploufee and Martha Langevin Ellal, only two tribal members were left on the reservation. By the early 1970s, Elizabeth George Plouffe was the last remaining tribal member to live on the reservation. Her farmhouse, which lacked running water, electricity, or indoor plumbing, was the last standing structure on the reservation.
White-owned banks would not lend money for new homes because they could not repossess in case of default. The land under reservation homes belongs to the tribe, not individuals.
Luckily, Elizabeth George Ploufee was blessed with a very ambitious grandson, Skip Hayward. The first thing he did was recruit his brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins to join him on the reservation. If you could prove that one of your great-great-grandparents was listed in the tribal census of 1910, you could join.
“In the ’70s and ’80s, the first people who came here just left their lives behind. It was a real sacrifice. People were living here in trailers with no running water, living on the dole, and the support of Catholic charities.Skip Hayward
Skip Hayward and the Building of an Empire
With the help of Skip Hayward, the Mashantucket Pequots sued Connecticut over land claims, receiving an act of Congress officially recognizing the Pequots as a tribe. The tribe was state-recognized in 1974.
After gaining federal recognition in 1986, a high-stakes bingo hall took shape. It was 26,000 sq. ft. and welcomed busses in and out of state. However, Ledyard, the town next to the reservation, was not pleased to lose any land taxes they had received before Indian Reservation Sovereignty. Now Ledyard was about to lose out on the taxes available from “Super Bingo.”
In an agreement negotiated with the state of Connecticut to gain their approval for their casino, the Pequots agreed to pay 25 percent of the slot revenue to the state. And the rest, they say, is history – the journey that made Foxwoods so big.
Federal Tribal Recognition
In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Indian tribes are more or less sovereign nations. Consequently, federally recognized tribes could run their own gambling operations on tribal land, free of taxes and regulations.
How Did Foxwoods Get So Big? – The Future Unfolds
Foxwoods Opens, 1992
Foxwoods had scheduled to be open for 16 hours on opening day. Poker dealer Stephen Zelden described that night in 1992 as “a mass of people.” On that night, 2000 players were still present gambling at 1:30 AM. As a result, casino officials decided not to close. So, since then, it has been open 24 hours.
The opening night response and the crowds thereafter had officials thinking of Phase II expansion immediately. As a result, construction on the Great Cedar facility began shortly thereafter.
Slot Machines and the Connecticut Compact
Bingo, then table games, was the reason for Foxwood’s early success. In 1993, the Mashantucket Pequots and then Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. agreed on the tribe’s exclusive rights to operate video facsimile machines (VLT, slot machines). In return, Foxwoods would contribute 25% of gross slots revenue to the state. If the contribution were to fall below $100 million in any year, the rate would increase to 30%. The first year alone was over $110 million and increased until the recession in 2007.
The late 1990s was a perfect time for the Mashantucket Pequots and the state of Connecticut. Connecticut received $145,957,933 in 1995/1996 and amounted to almost $200 million per year before the recession in 2008.
Six years after opening, Foxwoods was the most successful gambling establishment in America. On summer weekends, 75,000 players a day would stand in lines for the privilege of pumping money into the 5,544 slot machines. The daily cash intake dwarfed that of any Vegas casino at the time. For example, each slot machine took in an approximate total of $603 million in 1997. But, of course, that wasn’t counting the wealth made by poker, craps, baccarat, and the rest, which went straight to the tribe.
Big Revenue Means More Expansion
A second hotel became the next expansion project. But not just any hotel. It would be the “grandest” hotel yet. The Grand Pequot Tower opened in 1997 with a dramatically lit lobby, centers around tribal sculptures and elements of Native American culture.
Besides the hotel, the Grand Pequot Tower also included another casino and a lower level for dining and entertainment.
The Mashantucket Pequots wanted to share their heritage as well as keep their history intact. So, on August 11th, 1998, the tribally owned-and-operated Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center opened and brought to life the story of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. The Museum is a 308,000-square-foot complex consisting of permanent exhibits, the Mashantucket Gallery (a gallery for temporary exhibits), classrooms, a 320-seat auditorium, a restaurant, a museum shop, and administrative offices.
Branching outdoors, Foxwoods looked to add a top-level golf course. Lake of Isles is now one of the top golf facilities in the country since it opened in 2005. The course has two 18-hole courses with amenities that include a 50,000 sq. ft. clubhouse, a state-of-the-art indoor and outdoor practice facility.
MGM Partners With the “Wonder of it All”
Foxwoods and MGM formed a partnership, opening MGM Grand at Foxwoods in 2008. However, in 2013, Foxwoods had to rename the property Fox Tower when MGM and Foxwoods ended the partnership. The Fox tower connects to the Foxwoods Casino Resort by a moving, covered walkway.
The Fox Tower added yet another casino and another entertainment venue. “Shrine” became one of the east coast’s most exciting night club a night club. Additional meeting space tripled for conventions, celebrations, and trade shows. It rounded out an immense casino, hotel resort that led the nation in many areas.
The Peak Of Expansion at Foxwoods
By 2013, Foxwoods Resort Casino covered an area of 9,000,000 sq ft. At the peak of its title as the largest resort casino in the country, it had:
- five casinos
- more than 300 gaming tables for blackjack, craps, roulette, and table novelty games
- largest poker room east of California
- more than 6000 slot machines
- 2,228 hotel rooms in three hotels
- over 35 dining options and buffet
It was the largest casino resort in the United States at the time.
The Gigantic Complex is Complete – Or Is It?
The Great Recession of 2007 – 2009 hit the gaming industry hard. Connecticut’s two tribal casinos – Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun – also felt the pinch. State revenue from the two casinos reached its peak in 2007 at more than $411 million.
But then, Foxwoods borrowed heavily to finance the previous massive expansion. As a result, debt defaults in 2008 and the increased casino competition introduced a decline in gambling revenue that has yet to be reversed.
Foxwoods began to down-size after the Great Recession, converting casino floor space for nightclubs and other new attractions. Amenities became their saving grace. Foxwoods devoted the next expansion completely to retail.
Take Me To The Mall
In 2015, Tanger Outlets Foxwoods opened within the complex, between the renamed Fox Tower and Grand Pequot Tower. Constructed for $120 million, the 85-store mall focused on luxury brands and the usual mall stores.
Did You Know?
Walking from Fox Tower Parking Garage to the Rainmaker garage can take up to 20 minutes one way.
Foxwoods has three major pedestrian avenues (Foxwoods, Bingo, and Mall Ave) and four secondary streets. Pedestrian traffic inside only, of course.
The Mashantucket Pequot Indian High Stakes Bingo facility was first named Foxwoods when it opened in 1992.
The future of Foxwoods in this post-pandemic era is yet to have a specific path. On the one hand, peddling their brand to Puerto Rico could be the beginning of the expansion. On the other hand, there is still a lot the Mashantucket Pequots need to open at their enormous Connecticut property.
As the pandemic subsides, new opportunities may present themselves.
Instead of dwelling on the downturn during the pandemic, Foxwoods’ recently named CEO Jason Guyot said he sees expansion opportunities.
In fact, over the next four to six months, Foxwoods will unveil several new amenities he said will attract more people to his Ledyard-based casino.
“We are going to continue to add experiences shortly; you aren’t going to be able to get anywhere but at Foxwoods,” Guyot said with confidence.
The beginning of legal sports betting and iGaming could be one of those experiences available before this year’s NFL season starts.
But, whatever the “experiences” turn out to be, Foxwoods hopes to return to its hay-day when it was the “Wonder of it All.”