DATELINE: HOGANSBURG, N.Y.

Bingo makes the big time

BRUCE WALLACE April 28 1986
DATELINE: HOGANSBURG, N.Y.

Bingo makes the big time

BRUCE WALLACE April 28 1986

Bingo makes the big time

DATELINE: HOGANSBURG, N.Y.

The Mohawk Bingo Palace is an extraordinary place. Located on the St. Regis Indian reserve two kilometres south of Cornwall, Ont., in upstate New York, the enormous $2-million building is designed to bring glamor to a game that has for years been identified with smoky, dim church basements. At the Mohawk, numbers are posted on 10 electronic scoreboards, and 15 closed-circuit television monitors enable all players—the building holds 1,900—to see the winning bingo card scrutinized for accuracy. “We have tried to bring comfort to bingo,” said Guilford (Gil) White, a Mohawk and former ironworker who is part-owner of the Palace. “Our research told us that twothirds of bingo players are women, and three-quarters of them smoke; we have twice as many bathrooms as normal halls and have installed the most sophisticated air conditioning system we could buy.”

But the most distinguishing features of the Mohawk are the prizes. Every weekend night fans pay as much as $105 each on admission and cards to play a game known as high-stakes bingo. The prizes involve thousands of dollars in cash, new cars, television sets, vacation trips and jewelry. Because of special concessions granted to native enterprises on Indian lands, prizes are exempt from U.S. tax. And the winnings are far bigger than those allowed by law in neighboring Canada. As a result, bingo players travel to the Mohawk from as far away as Quebec City, Toronto and Boston. Said Ottawa businessman William Popowicky, who has won more than $28,000 after going to the Palace three times a week for the past year: “You get more bang for your buck here.”

Jackpots have run as high as $130,000, and reports of winners driving home in new Cadillacs have led to high turnouts since the Palace opened last May. The Palace, located near the town of Hogansburg, has become one of the main entertainment attractions in the industrial region dominated by aluminum smelters on both sides of the St. Lawrence River. Billboards at the border beckon Canadian bingo players crossing the two-lane Seaway International Bridge at Cornwall. “You see the same faces week after week,” said Hull, Que., native Huguette Lacroix, who makes the 120-km bus trip three times a week.

American Indian reserves have pio-

neered the high-stakes bingo games. In the 1970s, Florida’s Seminole Indians took advantage of U.S. court rulings that granted Indians the right to make rules on taxation, effectively granting them immunity from state taxation laws on bingo games. Encouraged by the success of the Seminóles, other reserves opened for bingo business, and White estimates that there are now 90 Indian reservations hosting highstakes games in the United States. In New York State, White and his partners have clearly found a willing clientele. “All we had to do was let it be known that we were open for business,” said White. “There are not too many secrets in the bingo world.”

But White and his partners encountered some resistance to their project from both the Indian and non-Indian communities. Recalled White: “Everybody and his brother was running a small bingo game and they didn’t want the competition.” The Palace has also cut deeply into the popularity of local bingo games off the reserve. “Several of our community games have had to close down or cut back because they are not getting the crowds,” said R. Shawn Gray, executive director of the Massena Chamber of Commerce. But White says that his operation is not competing for the regular bingo competitors and added, “We are attracting

a different type of bingo player.”

Some nearby store owners were also angry at the prospect of even more competition from the reserve, where retail sales in stores were already booming. An absence of state and federal taxes helps to keep prices low, particularly on such heavily excised items as gasoline and tobacco. Some local residents said that they were concerned that the Bingo Palace would contribute to an undercurrent of tension between Indians and whites.

But White has managed to win the confidence of his fellow St. Regis Mohawks. The Palace is now the largest employer on the reserve of 7,000, providing fulland part-time jobs for 140 people, 120 of them Mohawks. And

while he currently pays the Mohawks a $14,000 monthly royalty, he has pledged to turn over 51 per cent of the bingo profits to the tribe once his initial investment is paid off. Said White: “Our tribe needs sources of revenue to develop an economic base.” As well, hotel and restaurant businesses in Massena and Cornwall benefit from the bingo players who descend on the region. White has added a hotel reservation service to meet the demand.

For thousands of Canadian bingo enthusiasts, the Palace provides the same allure that Las Vegas does for followers of more glamorous games. Even the routine highway journey has taken on a carnival-like quality. Montrealers on the 90-minute “Bingo Express” to the St. Regis reserve occupy themselves with sing-alongs and even cash draws. Joseph (Pep) Frangione, an Ottawa tour-bus operator who won a contract to trans-

port bingo players to the reserve from the Ottawa-Hull region, started the “Mohawk Bingo Shuttle” last year with one bus. Now, four luxury coaches make the 70-minute trip every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night, and Frangione has opened a second office in the nearby Gatineau Hills of Quebec. “There is never a slow season,” he said. “This is bingo mania.”

The Palace makes special provisions for Canadians: numbers are called in both English and French, and there is a currency exchange wicket which discounts the exchange rate by two or three per cent. Said Florence Lanoue, who often used to attend four different bingo games in Ottawa every Saturday before she discovered the Palace: “Ev-

erybody is nice here, from the security guards to the floor workers.” During one particularly rewarding visit to the Palace last month, Lanoue won a trip to Las Vegas.

The Palace’s only drawback for Canadian players is the long delay at the Cornwall customs post, as caravans of returning buses line up. Said one overworked Canadian customs agent: “It’s a real circus around here when they go back; it’s a zoo.” But for most players, the delays and distance—as well as the expense—do not diminish the allure of big-time bingo. Although he had never won a major prize before, Popowicky expressed the infinite hopefulness of a true bingo addict. As he scrutinized the next number coming up on the nearest television monitor he said, “I want to see if I can win that car.”

BRUCE WALLACE