Sunday, January 08, 2012

What Casinos Will do in Mass.: A Profile of Norwich, Conn.

Norwich, Conn.
November 20, 2011

Few people know this, but Foxwoods Casino wasn't always Foxwoods. Before it became the wonder in the Connecticut woods, Foxwoods was a bingo hall. I remember driving past it each summer when I was a kid sitting in the back of my family's station wagon, on the way to the Connecticut shore. A short road off of state highway 2 led to a low rise building. It looked pretty depressing, but at least it meant we were more than halfway to the coast and the family boat.

Foxwoods Casino opened in late 1992, when I was a junior in high school. The region was still struggling through a tough economic recovery, as the recession of the early 90's took away the demand for the region's defense-industry-driven technology and manufacturing. Foxwoods promised to be part of the answer, bringing jobs and revitalizing the beleaguered towns surrounding it. A sister casino, Mohegan Sun, came a few years later, located roughly ten minutes or so by car from Foxwoods, within the village of Uncasville, nestled by the Thames River at the site of the former United Nuclear Corporation, which was a victim of the aforementioned recession.

Uncasville, as the crow flies, is only a few miles from downtown Norwich, an area of the state that has struggled for decades to shake off an economic shroud suffocating its own development. It was one area the casinos were supposed to help.

It would make sense that to see what we can expect here in Massachusetts, now that casinos are on the way, one would travel to Norwich to see what has happened there in the 15 or 20 years since casinos first arrived. I warn you, it's a pretty depressing trip, for the depression that still grips downtown Norwich is a reason I don't live there.

The weekend before Thanksgiving, I took the trip back to downtown Norwich with my brother Brett and his wife Holly. We drove from my parents' house after celebrating the 90th birthdays of both of my grandmothers, who were born in Norwich.

So I write this post with quite a bit of trepidation, because I love the area of Connecticut that I grew up in. The Norwich Free Academy, my high school with cheery blossoms, a museum and a sprawling campus befitting a small college, is only a short jog away from where I took the pictures and the videos for this post. It is my love of the area that fuels my frustration now, and I feel this post (as well as those sure to follow it on this topic) is necessary to show my neighbors in Massachusetts what to expect, and to explain why I am so definitively opposed to casinos here. So let's begin our tour.

All the pictures below were taken on Main Street in Norwich, Conn. on Sunday, November 20, 2011.

Not sure what Brett is looking at, as the shop is empty.

Last time I was here, this was a nightclub, which gave me hope, as this building was previously empty. It's empty again.

Pretty uninviting. Probably not best to be here at night.

Just one of many condemned buildings.

A pawn shop. Not that I needed to write that.

Just scary images all around.

The only businesses that have survived in downtown Norwich are those related to the courthouse there. There is a large law firm and a bail bond agency. Oh and then there's Billy Wilson's, the local watering hole.

We stopped in at a newer pub, The Harp & Dragon, for lunch. Amazingly, it was actually a pleasant experience. The football games were on, and the bartenders were wearing football uniforms. I spotted one of my high school classmates there.

"This place is pretty cool," I shouted out.

"Yeah," he shrugged. "Makes you forget you are in Norwich."

Next time I go there, I will report back if the Harp & Dragon is still an option.

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