Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mashpee Wampanoag Indians Scale Back Size Of Possible Casino

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In today's Boston Globe, the Mashpeee Wampanoag Tribe discuss the status of the relationship with their investors and building a smaller casino once state and/or federal legislation allows them to take land into trust for a casino or the state selects the Mashpees for a commercial casino license.

The Tribe In The Media:
Wampanoag tribe cuts size of casino project
By Christine Legere
The Boston Globe
October 21, 2009

MIDDLEBOROUGH - Leaders of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe have scaled back plans to build a billion-dollar resort casino in Middleborough, saying they would start small with a facility that simply offers some gambling choices and food.

Primarily because of the slow economy, the vision for the project has changed, a tribal council member said yesterday, following a Monday meeting with town officials.

Amenities, such as a hotel, would come later, and its size would be dictated by need, officials said.

The tribe’s proposal in 2007 for a glitzy resort was crafted along the lines of Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. Plans called for a sprawling casino with 4,000 slot machines and 125 gaming tables. Other amenities included a 1,100 room luxury hotel, a living museum rivaling Plimoth Plantation, a golf course, a complex of restaurants and shops, and other recreational facilities, including water parks.

Tribal council vice chairman Aaron Tobey said plans will not be formalized until the tribe is within six months to a year of construction.

“Realistically, that’s when we will do a feasibility study,’’ Tobey said. “We are not going to transplant Vegas into Middleborough. We’ll do something that represents the tribe and the town.’’

Tobey added that the tribe wants to see an adequate return on investment and wishes “to do something affordable.’’

Eric Cederholm, chairman of the Middleborough Resort Advisory Committee, said that at their meeting with tribe officials on Monday, “they gave every indication the project will move forward, but on a smaller scale than before.’’

“They gave no hard details, but said they would use a phased-in approach,’’ he said. “I got the impression that until they have their own issues worked out, a lot is still up in the air.’’

In addition to the shaky economy, the tribe faces several obstacles. A disagreement with investors has halted potential funding, and a Supreme Court ruling in February, called the Carcieri decision, barred land from being placed into federal trust for tribes recognized after 1934. The Mashpee tribe achieved federal recognition in 2007.

Washington lawmakers are working to amend the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 through legislation that would affirm the interior secretary’s authority to take land into trust for all tribes, regardless of when they were recognized.

The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe hopes that issues related to the Carcieri decision can be addressed on Nov. 5, when tribal council chairman Cedric Cromwell and representatives from other tribes meet with President Obama.

“The biggest thing that’s near and dear to Indian country is sovereignty and getting land back by having it put in federal trust,’’ Cromwell said yesterday. “We feel very confident it’s only a matter of time until our land will be placed into trust.’’

The mood among Massachusetts lawmakers has also bolstered tribal confidence. After rejecting casino gambling last year, state officials appeared to be more supportive of the prospect.

What they decide regarding slots at racetracks or commercial casinos will affect the plans of the Wampanoag, Tobey said.

Tribal leaders have had no conversations with Governor Deval Patrick regarding their casino proposal, but Tobey said they hope the project will remain a front-runner when casino licensing is discussed.

“We’d like to think that because we are natives and from Massachusetts, it would make good business sense to say the Wampanoag are the ones to get first consideration for a casino in Massachusetts,’’ Tobey said.

Regarding the dispute between investors and the Mashpee Wampanoag, Cromwell said both sides have pledged not to talk about ongoing negotiations, but issues are expected to be resolved.

Middleborough Selectmen chairman Patrick Rogers said his board had been previously told by Cromwell that the project would be smaller, so it was not surprising to hear about Monday’s discussion with the Resort Advisory Committee.

“The site will support future growth,’’ Rogers said. “For now, I would think they would build something suitable for the times. It makes good business sense.’’

Payments to the town, based on the 2007 agreement approved by Middleborough voters, are tied to some extent to the size of the casino operation. The town would get $7 million annually, plus 4 percent of hotel revenue. That latter amount was expected to drive the yearly total above $10 million.

Clyde Barrow, a professor at the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and an analyst on casinos, characterized the Wampanoag’s initial billion-dollar casino proposal as “a little over the top.’’

“With talk of two or three resorts in the state and slots at the tracks, you would almost have to scale back the project,’’ Barrow said.

“The average casino in Atlantic City is a $250 to $350 million operation, so what the tribe is talking about is the size of an Atlantic City casino,’’ he said. “It’s not small.’’