Could more casinos be coming to Connecticut?
The odds are better than ever for three state recognized tribes fighting for federal recognition, despite state and federal political leaders opposing it.
The Eastern Pequots in North Stonington, the Golden Hill Paugussetts in Colchester and Trumbull and the Schaghticokes in Kent are almost guaranteed federal recognition if the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs goes through with a draft proposal changing the dates tribes are required to prove they have been continually socially and politically active from.
The current standard of proof requires the tribes to show they have been a community since first contact with settlers. In Connecticut, that could go back to the 1600s. The proposed change would move that date up to 1934.
Kent First Selectman Bruce Adams is concerned his town’s New England charm will be lost if the Schaghticokes are granted federal recognition.
“I was told in no uncertain terms that you will have a sovereign nation on the other side of the river from your town, who can do, for most part, whatever they want,” said Adams.
Most concerning to him are the potential land claims. The land under the prestigious Kent School, a 550-student private school, the town’s sewer treatment plant and several private properties could be returned to the tribe.
“The further impacts of how it would affect the town’s infrastructure, schools, police force, of which we have none, remains to be seen,” said Adams.
The Schaghticoke Tribe was deeded thousands of acres along the Housatonic River to the New York border by the General Assembly in 1736. That was three years before Kent was incorporated into the Colony of Connecticut. State overseers sold the land off in pieces, dwindling it down to the current 401 acre reservation in 1801.
Alan Russell and his family members are virtually the only people who remain on the land today. He says the town has made good neighbors over the years but an injustice was done when the state sold the land off.
“If we can have federal recognition, it’s just gonna open up a different world for everybody,” said Russell. “Housing, education, health – whatever they desire.”
It would also give the tribe an opportunity to open up a casino or manufacturing on their reservation or to negotiate a land swap to build on land off the reservation.
Gail Russell, Alan’s sister, would like to see a mall or casino built, but not in Kent.
“I’d like to trade off some of the money we get for land and see a casino,” said Gail.
The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters have learned that members of the tribe have held discussions for locations off Interstate 84, in or around Danbury.
Further complicating the issues in Kent is a division among leadership of the Schaghticokes. Alan Russell is the Chief for the Schaghticoke Indian Tribe. Another man, Richard Velky is chief of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation.
Both sides have applied for individual recognition.
The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, led by Velky, achieved federal recognition in 2004 before political pressure and a court appeal brought a rare reversal one year later.
He would like to use federal recognition to apply for grants which would improve the reservation’s utility infrastructure and to build houses for tribal members.
He agrees with the Russells that Kent would not be the ideal fit for a casino.
“There’s really only one place that would draw a great crowd, and that is Bridgeport, Connecticut,” Velky said.
In the last go-around, Velky had backing from several high profile, casino-minded investors. They included Subway founder Fred DeLuca and casino Mogul Steve Wynn.
A referendum was held in Bridgeport, in which a great majority of the city voted in support of a casino. Velky believes the city still wants one and the state would oblige.
“The casino itself would employ eight to ten thousand people on a full-time basis,” said Velky. “I mean is somebody against eight to ten thousand jobs? Because I read someone got 50 jobs and they break out the ribbon cutting.”
The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation could attempt to build on their own or even partner with the Golden Hill Paugussetts for a Bridgeport casino, according to tribal members.
It’s not just the western part of the state that could feel the impact of proposed change. The Eastern Pequots are seeking federal recognition in the southeastern corner of Connecticut.
Tribal Chairmen Dennis Jenkins says federal recognition is about much more than slot machines and rolling dice.
“We’ve been in this process since the 1970s, long before casinos were ever thought of,” said Jenkins, who took over as chair of the 1,100-member tribe last year. “That’s not our goal.”
Jenkins believes the housing, education and health benefits of federal recognition would secure the future and longevity of his North Stonington based tribe. Like the Schagitcokes, the Eastern Pequots were granted federal recognition in 2004 before having it reversed.
Jenkins says he will not give up his right to opening a casino. The Eastern Pequots also had several high profile investors backing them a decade ago, including Donald Trump.
For tribe members who live on the 224-acre reservation, in the shadows of one Foxwoods, one of the world’s largest casinos, it has been difficult being left out.
“It’s tough being one of state recognized tribes after two have been recognized and now have casinos,” said Brenda Greer, the Eastern Pequots' Vice Chair. “It’s hard being the backyard cousins, if you will.”
North Stonington’s First Selectman Nicholas Mullane has worked against the federal recognition efforts of the Eastern Pequots and the expansion of the Mashantucket’s reservation for close to three decades.
“They built a city of 60-thousand people and never had a cumulative environmental impact study,” says Mullane about the Mashantuckets. “There is no planning and zoning, no wetlands, none of those other things that exist in other towns.”
He is now concerned what impact federal recognition and the land claims that would come could have on his town. He says thousands of acres of taxable properties could be lost.
He estimates the cost to his small town close to two million dollars in legal battles. He warns surrounding towns that they should be concerned too. He says land claims could extend well beyond North Stonington’s borders and would not be surprised if the Eastern Pequots negotiate a land swap with the Mashantuckets for a potential casino near Exit 92 on Interstate 95.
“As more get recognized, there will be a bigger push for off reservation casinos,” he says. “Some cities may take anything. I hope they don’t.”
The Connecticut congressional delegation, many cities and towns and the governor are lobbying hard against the proposed change. Gov. Dannel Malloy even hand delivered a letter to President Obama last fall seeking his help. States in other parts of the country are not lobbying against the proposed changes, so some feel the ruling is inevitable.
After decades of political and legal battles, the tribes are feeling more confident.
“If I have to be enemies with the town of Kent fine, but we want our land back,” said Allen Russell. “My feeling is, if they’re not going to sit down and talk before these rules come out then we want everything. There’s not going to be negotiations. We want every little piece of land.”