Feds OK tribal land for Mashpee casino

Big decisions ahead for state Gaming Commission


THE MASHPEE WAMPANOAG TRIBE won a major victory in its quest to build a resort casino in Taunton on Friday, receiving approval for 321 acres of land to be taken into trust by the federal government in a decision that will shake up the southeastern Massachusetts casino market.

The US Department of the Interior approved the tribe’s 2007 application for land in trust after years of negotiations and reviews, clearing the path for the tribe to open a casino on the land with or without a state gaming license. According to the tribe, the Interior Department will transfer approximately 170 acres of land in Mashpee and approximately 151 acres of land in Taunton to be held in federal trust for the benefit the tribe.

“Today, history has come full-circle. This is truly a glorious, monumental day – a day many of our people, both living and deceased, have spent their entire lives working to establish,” Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council Chairman Cedric Cromwell said in a statement.

Cromwell and other tribal officials plan a press conference in Mashpee on Saturday to discuss the news. The tribe counts 2,600 enrolled citizens.

Under the state’s 2011 expanding gaming law and a compact negotiated with the tribe by the former Patrick administration, the Mashpee Wampanoag would pay 17 percent of gaming revenue from a Taunton casino back to the state if it is awarded the third and final license for a resort casino. That is less than the 25 percent a commercial developer would have to pay.

The Gaming Commission has the discretion to issue a license in southeastern Massachusetts to a commercial developer. If both the tribe and a commercial casino opened in the region, the tribe would not owe any gaming taxes to the state.

Rush Street Gaming currently has an application pending before the Gaming Commission to build a resort casino on the Brockton Fairgrounds. Voters in Taunton have already embraced the concept of a tribal casino in their city. While raising the possibility of a lawsuit challenging land-in-trust approval, Rush Street has said it would still want to open its casino even if the tribe has a casino.

“The administration knows this is a long and anticipated step for the tribe as they pursue a casino in Taunton, and we will monitor their future efforts,” Elizabeth Guyton, press secretary to Gov. Charlie Baker, said in a statement.

The Gaming Commission issued a carefully worded statement. “The decision by the US Department of Interior to approve land into trust is a milestone for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe,” the statement said. “This determination provides further important information for the decisions the commission must make in the weeks ahead. The commission looks forward to continuing the discussion about the path forward as it relates to gaming in southeastern Massachusetts and remains committed to making decisions that are based in the long term best interest of the Commonwealth.”

[While the federal government’s decision is a huge step forward for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, there is no guarantee they will ever move forward with a casino on the land. A 2009 Supreme Court decision suspended the Department of Interior’s ability to take reservation land for recently recognized tribes like the Mashpee.]

The tribe’s plans for the land in Taunton includes three hotels, an event center, restaurants, retail stores, and a water park. According to federal officials, the project would create an estimated 3,500 full-time and part-time jobs and 287 construction jobs.

“The tribe’s origins in southeastern Massachusetts predate the arrival of Europeans on this continent,” Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn said in his decision. “At the time of initial European contact, the tribe’s ancestors occupied all of modern-day Bristol, Barnstable, and Plymouth Counties.”

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Matt Murphy

State House News Service
Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, who worked as the Senate’s chief architect of the state’s expanded gambling law, congratulated the tribe on a “long-deserved victory for their people.” He also said he hopes the Gaming Commission will now consider the threat of oversaturating the gambling market as its weighs whether to issue a commercial resort casino license in the southeast region.

“Today the tribe receives the full recognition that can only come with the award of tribal lands to a proud sovereign people. Their ancestors welcomed the Pilgrims and we should all be proud to see their ancestral homelands restored. This is a timely decision, as the Massachusetts Gaming Commission wrestles with whether to issue a commercial casino license in that region. I believe the MGC has the responsibility to weigh the significant market oversaturation that would no doubt occur with multiple resort casinos in the southeastern region,” Rosenberg said in a statement.