The Mashpee mad dash
A section of the state’s new casino gambling law that was intended to give a head start to the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe may now be working against the tribe. The section requires the Mashpee to meet a July 31 deadline for concluding local and state gambling negotiations over a casino site, or they lose their preferential status and face a slew of competitors.
“I don’t think they can satisfy the deadline,” says Dennis Whittlesey, a Washington, DC-based attorney who specializes in tribal gambling. Whittlesey represented Middleborough in the town’s 2007 negotiations with the Mashpee. He says each of the hurdles the Mashpee have to clear – finding land for a casino, selling a municipality on the idea, negotiating a local mitigation agreement, striking a compact with the governor, and getting that compact through the Legislature – is a potentially time-consuming exercise. Taken together, Whittlesey says, “It would be a mad dash to get it done.”
The Mashpee Wampanoag has been scouring southeastern Massachusetts for a casino site for months. The tribe struck a deal to locate a sizable casino in Middleborough in 2007, before abandoning that site – and the financial backers who underwrote the purchase of more than 300 acres – in favor of a property in Fall River. The Fall River deal subsequently fell apart, as did talks to partner with George Carney, owner of the Raynham Park dog track. Casino watchers are now eyeing a Bridgewater property, a parcel on the Wareham-Plymouth line that was to have been the home of Plymouth Rock Studios, and the bank-owned Silver City Galleria in Taunton as possible landing spots for the tribe. The Mashpee, now backed by the Malaysian gambling giant Genting, are said to be weeks away from making a land acquisition announcement.
Real estate deals have burned the Mashpee twice in recent years, and they’ve taken their time committing to a casino site. Still, the July 31 deadline for securing tribal gambling agreements has been on the table since the House began seriously advancing its casino bill in late August. The tribe has yet to put land for a casino under agreement, more than two months after Gov. Deval Patrick signed the casino bill into law. The delay means there will be tremendous pressure on the tribe to clear all the legal hurdles that need to be cleared by July 31. It looked like the Legislature gave the Mashpee a head start, but now the tribe and its lawyers are going to have to sprint.
Under the state’s casino gambling law, every city or town that’s proposed as a casino host community has to hold a referendum. The Mashpee can’t hold a vote until at least 60 days after the tribe puts its casino land under agreement. A municipality could wait as long as 90 days before holding a vote. So the longer the tribe’s real estate search goes on, the more compressed the rest of its schedule becomes.
On top of the local vote, the tribe also has to strike two complex legal deals – one with the municipality where the casino would be located, and one with the state.
According to Middleborough selectman Allin Frawley, an outspoken casino opponent, the three months between when the Mashpee closed on their Middleborough real estate and the town meeting vote felt like an “extremely rushed process.” He says voters had less than a week to review the mitigation agreement between the town and the Mashpee. “If anybody learned anything from the Middleborough experience, it’s to put the brakes on and fully vet the agreement,” Frawley says.
Whittlesey, the attorney who handled that deal, says he had to spend weeks inside Middleborough Town Hall, doing research and preparing documents, before he even got to the negotiating table with the Mashpee. The mitigation agreement itself took a week of around-the-clock negotiations, with the two sides locked inside a secret location in Boston. And that was an easy deal; one casino negotiation, in Detroit, took more than five months.A state compact should take even longer to hammer out, Whittlesey says, especially because the state doesn’t have its legal team in place yet. “I can’t imagine a compact negotiation happening before the summer,” he says. “Let’s say it takes a month. That’s dramatic, but it could be done. This timeline is really, really tight.”
In his statement, Cromwell said, “We are fully aware of the compressed timeline in which we are operating, and we are confident that we will meet all deadlines and successfully negotiate a mutually beneficial compact agreement with the governor.”