Choice Of Taunton Begins Next Stage For Mashpee Tribe Casino Pursuit

If Leap Day, February 29, is supposed to be good luck for engagement proposals, then a down-on-its-luck city in southeastern Massachusetts may have hit the jackpot with its new suitor.

Months of speculation ended Wednesday morning when Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Chairman Cedric Cromwell and Taunton Mayor Thomas Hoye Jr. officially announced that the tribe has selected the “silver city” as the proposed location for the development of a destination resort casino.

A large contingent of media, including Boston and Providence television network news affiliates, local and state dignitaries, and tribe members descended upon a former, 1950s-era elementary school for a brief press conference. The school has served as Taunton’s center of government since an arson fire ravaged its city hall in 2010.

During the briefing, the two leaders confirmed that that the tribe has entered into an option to purchase land in the city. When the news was announced, a group of excited tribe members, who have long waited for this day to come, made loud whooping sounds that appeared to startle some members of the audience.

The property is a 77-acre parcel in the Liberty and Union Industrial Park, located in East Taunton, in close proximity to the Silver City Galleria shopping mall. The property is at the intersection of Routes 140 and 24, and minutes from the heavily traveled Interstates 495 and 95.

During the press conference, Mayor Hoye made clear his focus on the revitalization of his city and view of the casino as a potential economic savior.

“I would be remiss as mayor if I did not take advantage of this opportunity to make Taunton the gem of southeastern Massachusetts,” said the mayor, who ran for office on a job creation platform last year. He cited new jobs, infrastructure improvements, increased public safety, downtown revitalization, and new business development as major factors for his decision to enter into negotiations with the tribe.

The tribe plans on building a resort that will include a casino, hotels, fine and casual dining, a retail complex, and a water park. The project is estimated to cost approximately $500 million and, when finished, would employ up to 5,000 people, according to information provided by the tribe.

In an interview following the press conference, Mr. Cromwell would not provide an anticipated groundbreaking or grand opening date for the casino complex, but did say that he wanted the Mashpee’s casino to be the first to open in Massachusetts, giving it a head start on commercial gaming operations planned for the Boston area and western Massachusetts.

Mr. Cromwell was also eager to point out that Taunton is of historical significance to the tribe, making it an especially appropriate location. Mr. Cromwell said that an early settler of the area was a Wampanoag who owned a 200-acre property, and the Taunton River had been a major waterway for the tribe’s ancestors.

 

“I’m cautiously optimistic that this proposal will work here.”

           - Taunton Mayor Thomas Hoye

Next Steps

There is a lot of work to be done before the slot machines start ringing in East Taunton.

In addition to crafting an intergovernmental agreement between the city and the tribe, the tribe must receive voters’ approval in a referendum on the project.

Mr. Cromwell and Mayor Hoye said that they want the process to be open, collaborative, and transparent. During the coming weeks, community meetings will be held in every neighborhood of Taunton, providing residents with the opportunity to ask questions and offer suggestions about the proposed casino.

A referendum vote could be held as early as 60 to 90 days from now, according to Gill E. Enos, budget director of the City of Taunton.

The tribe is also required to negotiate a revenue sharing and regulatory compact with Governor Deval L. Patrick regarding the operation of the casino. The referendum vote and compact negotiations must be completed by July 31, or the casino bidding process could be opened to commercial gaming operators.

Third Time A Charm?

The tribe has had two high-profile false starts, with the Town of Middleborough and the City of Fall River, in its quest for a casino in southeastern Massachusetts.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that this proposal will work here,” Mayor Hoye said during the press conference.

“Good luck to Taunton,” said Allin J. Frawley, a Middleborough selectman.

The Mashpee received preferred status to receive a casino license in the southeastern Massachusetts region following the signing of the expanded gaming bill by the governor late last year. Since then, identifying the tribe’s chosen location had become somewhat of a sport among media and local residents. Fall River, New Bedford, Bridgewater, Middleborough, Raynham, Plymouth, and Wareham were all, at one time or another, considered contenders.

Mr. Frawley contends that the tribe still has a valid agreement with the town, and before it moves on to another location, it must finish its business with Middleborough, including $500,000 in mitigation payments, and money for other infrastructure improvements made in anticipation of a casino coming to town.

“Middleborough still has a place at the table in any compact negotiations the tribe has with the governor,” he said, referring to a part of the tribe-town deal that guaranteed Middleborough a role in negotiations between the tribe and the state.

Mr. Frawley said he also wants the tribe’s application to place land in trust in Middleborough to be withdrawn. He also questions whether gaming can be conducted on land that has not been placed in trust, and recently wrote a letter regarding his concern to Governor Patrick.

On December 22, he received a written response from the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development stating that any tribal casino must be operated on tribal land taken into trust by the US secretary of the interior, and that establishing a casino on non-trust land would require a commercial casino license from the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.

“I’m not a gambling man, but I will bet that there will not be a tribal casino in southeastern Massachusetts,” Mr. Frawley said, adding that the possibility that the Town of Middleborough may file a lawsuit against the tribe cannot be ruled out.

Middleborough Town Manager Charles J. Cristello said that there have been efforts to resolve the issue in the past, and that it is in the best interest of both parties, and the City of Taunton, to resume the talks as soon as possible. Mr. Cristello said that as of now there has not been any meetings or discussions scheduled.

What Tribe Members Think

Tribe members interviewed this week offered a variety of opinions on the project, its prospects for success, and what it could mean for the tribe.

John A. Peters Jr., a Mashpee tribe member and executive director of the state Commission on Indian Affairs, said he is pleased by the new location, close as it is to a highway intersection and with fewer environmental concerns than the site in Middleborough.

“We are at the point of no return. I believe this will happen...It is one of those ventures that the tribe has struggled with, and we are going for it now. We will work together to make this happen,” he said.

However, he said the tribe’s debt, now and to future generations, is a growing concern. “The mindset back a few years ago was, if you build it, they will come. But now, looking at what’s been going on in Connecticut and the rest of the country, it is not as lucrative as it used to be. And it is more competitive now,” Mr. Peters said.

“I have been trying to warn my son that this debt is still going to be there,” he said. “It is a lesson for all of us, in terms of how we think about this. It is not Christmas. It is a business venture that we are getting into, and we have to treat it that way. There will be pluses and minuses that go along with it, and hopefully it will enable us to do some other things as well.”

The casino is a means to other advances, not an end in itself, he said.

Tribe member Paul Mills said the casino money could be a means to pay for scholarships for young tribe members and to provide health and dental care for others. However, the pursuit has not been without some downside.

He said the casino has caused more and deeper strife within the tribe. “It seems like such a short time ago when the tribe was run mostly on the money that we got from pow wow. That was our main source of revenue, along with a few grants and donations...Now the size of our budget is astounding,” he said.

Likewise, he said he has been hearing concerns from adult tribe members they are not going to see any benefit in their lifetimes.

“The comment I’ve heard is that we are borrowing millions so we can just try to pay back the millions,” he said. “That’s why I think the time for a casino has passed us by. There’s the economy, and now there’s a lot of competition.”

Questions about the tribe’s debt and investors were also raised by tribe member Steven G. Bingham. Mr. Bingham was an early member of the group that accused former tribal council officers of corruption, charges that ultimately proved correct.

He noted that the Mashpee tribe’s investors, an affiliate of the international casino conglomerate Genting Group has a financial stake in the Foxwoods casino, run by the Mashantucket Pequots in Connecticut.

According to various news reports, Genting was an early backer of Foxwoods and continues to collect a percentage of the casino’s slots revenue.

“Remember that most of the customers at Foxwoods come from Massachusetts. Why would you put a new casino in Massachusetts, when you’ve got all this money invested in a casino in Connecticut?” Mr. Bingham said. “This is being set up for failure. There is no way it is going through.”

He said it may not be a conflict of interest for the investors but it does seem to be for the two tribes.

He said he is concerned that Taunton may not approve the referendum, leaving the tribe just months away from the July 31 deadline and with no casino site.

Additional reporting for this story was provided by Brian H. Kehrl.

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