Indian Tribe’s public works department ensures casino landscaping is a winner

In New London County in Connecticut, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe operates Foxwoods Resort Casino and MGM Grand at Foxwoods, considered one of the world’s largest resort casino in gaming space and the number of slot machines and one of the most economically successful.

The Executive Entrance at Foxwoods Resort and Casino. The entryways are kept formal for the guests.

Sporting attractive landscaping is critical when a facility has that kind of a reputation.

Todd Clement, exterior landscape manager for the casino and resort, is the man who makes sure it all looks good. The landscape department is a division of the public works department.

Clement, fresh out of Maine’s Unity College where he studied park management, started with the tribe in 1993. He started when it first opened as the resort and casino. He manages a staff of 10, cut back from 30 during the 2008 Recession.

Mashantucket Pequot Tribe Public Works

Philosophy/Approach: Formal landscaping near the casino; a natural look beyond the buildings
Exterior Landscape Manager: Todd Clement
Location: New London County, Conn.
Services: Lawn care, landscaping, snow removal and irrigation maintenance
Responsibilities: 150 acres; 24 individual gardens, 22 irrigation systems
Employees: 10

Small staff maintains 150 acres

The staff manages 22 irrigation systems, eight off-site government buildings and three main resort areas, including the resort, casino and the Two Trees Inn. It tends to 150 acres of landscaped space.

Three staff members maintain the lawn. The fertilization and pest management is subcontracted for speed and efficiency, Clement says. Eight staff members, including Clement, maintain the landscaping. Of those, one employee maintains the irrigation system on a full-time basis and another is a horticulturalist whose sole responsibility is working in the flower gardens.

The staff maintains 24 individual gardens around the property, changing them out three times a year according to the seasons. The landscape department also assists the public works department with snow removal by taking care of the sidewalks and the entrances and exits to the buildings.

Clement says the department generally uses a bluegrass/fescue blend in the lawn areas. “Most of our main resort areas have been sodded, so we don’t use too much seed,” he says. “We deal with some of the roadside mowing, which is 3 or 4 feet from the curb line.”

The acreage includes 15 tree varieties and more than 100 types of shrubs.

MGM Drive, the entrance to MGM Grand at Foxwoods. The landscaping crew tries to keep the entryways very formal for guests at the resort.

Design follows cultural norms

“Depending on how close we are to the resort, it’s very formal. As we work away from it, we get to a more natural landscape,” Clement says. “The ultimate goal of the reservation was gaming in the natural state. We try to keep the entryways very formal for folks to see when getting out of their cars. As you go away, you’re going back into the Connecticut woods. That’s the landscaping philosophy we use.”

The Mashantucket Pequot Tribe has its own natural resources protection department, Clement says.

“There are vernal pools located all around the resort that house some indigenous species, such as the spotted salamanders and the plovers. We are very careful about what we put on the roadways when we spray for irrigation and fertilizers,” notes Clement. “They monitor all of the wells very closely to let us know what’s going on there with the environment.”

Cultural considerations

Because Clement and his crew work for a Native American tribe, they must consider cultural concerns affecting nature and the environment in executing their work, Clement says.

“Working for the tribe because they are culturally in tune with nature, everything around here is cut into the wood lines,” he says. “We just don’t mass clear an area and put up a building. We work around natural things. Some trees we’re not even allowed to cut because they have a cultural significance to the tribe.

“As far as cutting down trees and things of that nature, we only really can get into our landscaped areas,” he says. “If we go into a natural area and have to do work, we have to get special permission. The tribal elders come out and look at the area. We have an historic preservation person and an archeologist who have to make sure there’s nothing in there before we disturb anything,” he says.

In doing so, they’ve found areas where there have been housing sites. At one spot, they discovered a fort, which affected some construction for a little while, Clement says.

“Everything is done with an archeological dig first no matter where we are,” he adds.

Another consideration is the use of certain species that reflect the reservation’s culture, Clement says.

“There are some rhododendrons with a blood red color,” he says. “That to the tribe represents the blood of their ancestors, so we try to use those types of plant species and colors to represent what the tribe is about and how they feel. We do get a lot of input from the tribal members and the administration on what they’d like to see, which is very nice because usually you don’t get top-down feedback like that.”

Clement and his crew also help maintain the grounds around the Mashantucket Museum and Research Center, which is funded by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation.

“They have a huge outdoor exhibit that we help them with and planting natural species that are right for the area,” Clement says. “It takes a lot of work for us to hunt down these species that haven’t been hybrid or anything else to get them back to their natural state, the witch hazels and things like that because they have a special purpose.”

Leveraging the crew’s capabilities

Clement says his biggest challenge is to educate others about his crew’s capabilities.

“A lot of people think that because we are part of public works we mow grass and we shovel snow,” he says. “We do so much more than that and most people don’t see it because we’re behind the scenes so early and gone when they’re coming in.”

Clement avails himself of opportunities at directors’ meetings and in front of the tribal council to offer presentations on what his staff does to help maintain the reservation.

“We get involved in as many of the cultural events as we can as support staff, maintaining the Pow-Wow grounds and helping them get ready so they can see the talent that exists in this division and to be able to use us more efficiently,” he says.

Another challenge for Clement and his crew is the “people” environment in which they work. “The patrons are here to gamble and have fun at the resort and the amount of wear and tear on the landscape alone is pretty incredible,” he says.

At the present time, his crews are working on three projects simultaneously.

“We keep things moving because one of the things about working around hotels is that we can’t get in next to a hotel until after 9 or 10 a.m. That only gives us about a four-hour window, because we have to be out of there by 3 p.m. for check-in,” Clement points out.

Some of the equipment that Clement and his crew use on the job includes zero-turn mowers and bank mowers for roadside work. For landscaping, they use Kubota tractors and Bobcat skid steers.

“We use the smaller versions of them, because everything around here is so tight,” Clement says. “We need to be able to travel on sidewalks to get into some of these courtyard areas and maintain these spaces.”

The crew also uses STIHL equipment, and its entire fleet is comprised of Chevrolet trucks.

In terms of chemical use, Clement’s team uses a hybrid approach.

“We use chemicals on the resort, just because it is a resort and we have to keep it looking like that,” he says. “Off the resort, we go primarily organic unless we have an outbreak of something.”

Clement says the current push is toward a more maintenance-free landscape. “We’re getting away from the use of bark mulch and going to more stone or hardscape looks in trying to keep the yearly maintenance down,” he says. “With the reduction of staff, it’s tough to get out there with 1,800 yards of mulch before Memorial Day.”

Trading knowledge with the private sector

As a public works employee, Clement says he’s learned much from the private landscaping industry and, in turn, has some lessons to pass along of his own.

“What we’ve learned from the private industry is the water conservation efforts that they employ and some of the efficiencies,” he says. “The private contractors have shown us how to do some things more efficiently here on the reservation, which has been nice because we’ve had some of the larger companies come in and do some work for us as far as construction and installation and watching them and how they work has helped us a lot.”

Clement’s advice to private contractors is to try to get involved in a project in the early stages. “Try to get in on the ground floor and work with a municipality, state or corporation from the bottom up, because there are a lot of things that can happen on the ground floor that can make your job a lot easier as it comes up,” he says.

“Being part of public works, we have that opportunity,” he adds. “When they were building the MGM, we were allowed to review the landscape plans before construction even started and we made our recommendations as to future maintenance needs we may have.”

For instance, sidewalk designs were expanded to accommodate snow equipment.

“Some of the plant materials that were originally specified by the architect we asked that they be changed-out because of the environmental concerns we had here,” Clement says. “Some things just don’t live here in our area and we’ve had more luck with other species. If we didn’t have that opportunity, this stuff would have just been planted in and we’d be fighting it for the next five years trying to change it out, especially with the limited budgets that everyone has for the project.”

Public work benefits

Clement says another benefit of doing landscape work as part of a public works department for an Indian tribe casino is that it operates year-round with no downtime. And, he and his employees get benefits.

“Most landscape contractors don’t have that opportunity to do that to retain their staff,” Clement says. “We pull a lot of experienced folks from a lot of other companies looking for long-term employment and I train them every year.”

Clement’s team has a monthly training session that features industry professionals who give instruction on seed identification, pest management, hardscaping and prunings. “We try to keep up on all of the new and improved ways of doing things as best we can,” he says. “Our employees are year-round and they’re out there doing everything. They have to be jack of all trades. They can be put on any crew any time of the day and moved around.”

Carol Brzozowski is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has written extensively about environmental issues for numerous trade journals for more than a decade. She resides in Coral Springs, Fla.