Saturday, September 22, 2007

Massachusetts Guv Wants Three Casinos

By Ken Davison

Earlier this week, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick recommended three commercial casino licenses be awarded in that state and said that an Indian tribe would recieve preferential treatment for one of these casinos.

The decision, which needs legislative approval, has given both federally-recognized Indian tribes of that state more casino options. The tribes could either apply for one of the three proposed commercial licenses or they could take the path of forcing the governor to negotiate an Indian gaming compact.

Both of Connecticut’s Indian casinos are likely to feel the competition. The Mashantucket Pequots say 35% of their casino’s visitors are from Massachusetts while the Mohegans report about half that percentage of Massachusetts residents visit the Mohegan Sun.

The two federally-recognized Indian tribes in Massachusetts are the Aquinna Wampanoags, who were recognized in 1987, and the Mashpee Wampanoags, recognized just this past February. Neither Tribe has negotiated gaming compacts with the state. Massachusetts does not permit the charity casino nights that were once allowed in Connecticut and which helped pave the way for the first Indian casino in Connecticut, the Mashantucket Pequot Nation’s Foxwoods casino. Legalizing casino gambling in Massachusetts, however, will give the Mashpees and Aquinnas a stronger bargaining position.

In 2001, a third Massachusetts Tribe, the Nipmuck Tribe, was on the verge of receiving federal recognition but the U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs’ positive finding was reversed under the Bush administration and their petition was later denied in 2004. The Nipmucks are appealing the decision.

The Aquinna Wampanoag, Mashpee Wampanoag and the Nipmucks were officially recognized by the state of Massachusetts in 1976. The Mashpees tell of their tribe welcoming the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1620 but it was the denial of a planned speech by an Aquinna Wampanoag man, Wamsuta, during celebrations of the 350th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims that sparked the Thanksgiving Day protests now held in Plymouth every year since 1970 and to which Indians from many tribes, including the Mohegans, have participated.

The Aquinna Wampanoags have trust lands in the town of Aquinna (Gay Head), in the southwest portion of Martha’s Vineyard Island. The Mashpees recently sent an application to the U.S. Department of the Interior to take into trust as their reservation 160 acres of land in the town of Mashpee and 550 acres in Middleborough. The Mashpees are proposing a $1 billion casino in Middleborough, near the east coast town of Plymouth.

The Pokanoket Wampanoag, neither recognized by the state or the federal government, sent a letter to the governor in August claiming the Mashpee’s proposed casino is infringing on their boundaries, as outlined in an 18th century map.

The Mohegans, with their partners, are likely to bid for one of the casinos. The Tribe announced a desire for a $1 billion casino complex in Palmer, located in western Massachusetts and in a path almost due north from their casino in Connecticut.

The two high-profile partners that developed and managed the Mohegan Sun, Len Wolman and Sol Kerzner, joined the partnership that is backing the Mashpee Wampanoag’s casino bid. Their company, Trading Cove Associates, managed the Mohegan Sun from its inception and until its seven-year contract was bought out on December 31, 1999 in a deal that agreed to pay Trading Cove 5% of the casino’s gross revenues for a fifteen-year period. Based on last year’s $1.5 billion in revenues at Mohegan Sun, Trading Cove earned about $75 million on their five percent formula in that one year alone. The Mohegan Sun, through its business arm Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, is expected to pay Trading Cove one billion dollars over this period, even if the casino revenues were to remain flat until the end of 2014. Wolman and Kerzner, among numerous ventures, also own a racetrack with slot machines (VLT’s) in Lincoln, Rhode Island.

Its not clear how long it may take until casinos are opened in Massachusetts. The state Legislature must first approve casino gambling, a bidding process for the licenses must be set up and background investigations completed before any casino construction can begin.