Mashpee Wampanoag Project First Light

Rendering of proposed Mashpee Wampanoag First Light Resort & Casino

As the Massachusetts Gaming Commission in recent weeks has sought a status update on the litigation that has put a hold on the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s development of a casino on tribal lands in Taunton, the tribe maintains that the project will happen.

“The Tribe’s development on our Taunton reservation lands is not a question of ‘if’ or even ‘how’ but merely ‘when,’” Tribal Council Chairman Cedric Cromwell said in a press release Monday, November 4.

Before a 2016 decision by a federal judge in Boston reversed an Obama-era decision granting the tribe about 320 acres of land in trust, tribal leaders had pledged to open a $1 billion First Light Resort and Casino in Taunton by 2017.

Since 2016, the status of the tribe’s casino project has hung in limbo as litigation slowly plays out in federal court.

“There are no further hurdles for us beyond this litigation and we never asked the state or the federal government for a single dime,” Mr. Cromwell said.

The tribe has sought to affirm its federal recognition and claim to land in trust through legislative avenues. In May, the US House of Representatives passed the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act (HR 312).

With the bill advancing to the Senate, Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Massachusetts) said in June that he was working to create a “successful strategy” for the bill. However, it remains unclear when, or if, the bill will be taken up in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Meanwhile, with the tribe locked in litigation and their legislative prospects at a standstill, the last of three Massachusetts casino licenses created by a 2011 law remains without a recipient.

In September, the Gaming Commission refused to reconsider its 2016 decision to deny a proposed casino in Brockton the remaining Region C license, with commission chairwoman Cathy Judd-Stein stating she had not seen, “sufficiently changed circumstances to warrant the motion for reconsideration at this time.”

At an October 24 meeting of the Gaming Commission, the commissioners requested an update on the litigation surrounding the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s federal status and their effort to build the casino in Taunton.

State Senator Marc R. Pacheco (D-Plymouth), speaking to the commission on October 24, said, “It’s absolutely quite appropriate that the commission get updated on the legal analysis relative to what’s happening on the federal level.”

Sen. Pacheco said by the end of 2020 there may be answers out of the federal government but by 2021, “if there is a change in the White House,” those decisions may again be in flux.

“I’m here to ask the commission to continue with your thoughtful deliberation about everything that is going on and not make a decision,” he said.

At the commission’s meeting on Thursday, November 7, Sen. Pacheco asked the Commission to hold off on making a decision until the end of the year, according to meeting minutes.

The tribe remains more than $500 million in debt to the casino project’s financial backer, Genting Malaysia, and continues to pay the Town of Taunton $500,000 a year even as the casino remains unbuilt.

Yet the tribe says the casino will be built. “Timing is in the hands of the litigation and legislation working their ways through the courts and Congress, but the Taunton development remains real and ready,” Mr. Cromwell said.

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