Friday, January 29, 2010

Mashpee Wampanoag Indians Look At Fall River As Possible Massachusetts Casino Site

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This installment of The Tribes In The Media is an article in today´s issue of Cape Cod Online about the Mashpee Wampanoag Indians recent casino discussions with the city of Fall River, Ma., as an alternative to the previously proposed Middleboro location.

Tribe eyes Fall River
By George Brennan
Cape Cod Online
January 29, 2010

FALL RIVER — Representatives of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe are hedging their bets that this financially strapped city will be a more welcoming home for a future casino, a move that may jilt residents of the rural town that the tribe has promised to pay millions.

Tribal leaders and Fall River officials met recently to talk about the possibility of relocating the tribe's proposed gambling venture, Mayor William Flanagan said yesterday.

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Ongoing coverage City leaders are looking at gaming as a way to ease a 16-percent unemployment rate and inject new life into the former textile giant. The tribe, on the other hand, which already has a deal in place with the town of Middleboro, may be looking to back off from its promised $250 million in infrastructure improvements.

"Right now, the city of Fall River has the second highest unemployment rate in the commonwealth of Massachusetts," Flanagan said. "So a gaming facility would put people to work of all skills levels and all education levels."

This is not Fall River's first foray into the expanded gambling debate. In 1997, the House overwhelmingly rejected a proposal by the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) to build a casino in the city. The Martha's Vineyard-based tribe also made a failed attempt to build a $25-million high-stakes bingo hall. In recent years, Fall River has been mentioned repeatedly as a possible location for a commercial casino.

"It has to be a measured response as to the enthusiasm," said Fernando Garcia, treasurer of the board of directors for the Fall River Office of Economic Development, citing the near-misses of the past.

A casino could be a real boon, as long as it's only a part of the city's economic development plans, he said. State lawmakers are poised to consider expanded gambling within a couple of months.

The Mashpee tribe does have a Fall River site in mind, Garcia said, but he and the mayor declined to identify the location.

Tribal council chairman Cedric Cromwell yesterday said the tribe met with Fall River officials on non-gaming issues and there are no plans in place to jump ship on the Middleboro deal.

"Our focus is Middleboro," Cromwell said. "That's where we have an agreement."

Since the 2007 deal was inked, the tribe has elected new leaders and found new investors to back its casino project.

A Fall River casino would put the Mashpee Wampanoag in direct competition with Twin River, a Lincoln, R.I., slot parlor run by their initial investors, Sol Kerzner and Len Wolman. The tribe remains in negotiations to sever ties with the South African casino moguls.

In November, the tribe announced a new partnership with Kien Huat Realty, a subsidiary of the Malaysian casino giant, Genting Group. That group backed Foxwoods Resort & Casino in Connecticut.

But earlier last year, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling threw a wrench in the Mashpee tribe's plans. The court decided that the secretary of the Interior cannot take reservation land into federal trust for tribes recognized after 1934. The Mashpee were recognized in 2007.

The deal with Middleboro is contingent on the land being taken into federal trust and the high court's decision puts that arrangement in peril, said Adam Bond, a former Middleboro selectman who helped negotiate the contract. If the Supreme Court ruling stands, it may qualify as an "impossibility of performance" and give the tribe leverage to walk away from the deal, Bond said.

It's leverage that Bond has been urging selectmen to use for months to sweeten the town's deal with the tribe. One of the areas the board could have targeted is easing the $250 million infrastructure improvements, he said. "The tribe has done all its negotiating with everyone else," Bond said. "The board of selectmen has done no negotiating."

But Dennis Whittlesey, the Washington-based attorney who specializes in Indian gaming law and was hired by Middleboro to craft the deal, said the pact is still binding, despite the court decision.

"The town does have a valid and enforceable agreement with the tribe," Whittlesey said yesterday. "If the tribe chooses to go somewhere else, then the town would have to consider its options under the agreement."

Middleboro town leaders did not return requests for comment yesterday.

"All of their assurances of being partners to the town are ringing pretty hollow right now," said Mark Belanger, a Middleboro resident and staunch casino critic.

What Belanger calls a rushed agreement between the town and the tribe set off years of bickering between pro- and anti-casino factions.

The tribe was federally recognized in February 2007 and, in July 2007, Middleboro voters approved a deal that would bring the town $7 million a year plus the revenue from a 4-percent hotel room tax. The tribe also promised to pay pre-planning costs — $750,000 of which have already been paid — and help the town boost its public safety services.

But in a second non-binding question, Middleboro town meeting voters said they didn't want a casino at all.

Flanagan, the Fall River mayor, said he believes there will be more support for a casino in his city. He said Fall River has shown favor in the past through ballot questions.

"What we have here in Fall River is we're located near all the major highways, we're a waterfront community, we have people who want to go to work, who are looking for work," Flanagan said. "The city of Fall River is on the cusp of really taking off right now."