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Mashpee Wampanoag tribe eyes casino in Fall River

By Steve LeBlanc
Boston, Massachusetts (AP) May 2010

The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe said during May it has struck a deal with Fall River to develop “an integrated resort-style casino” in the city.

The plan includes a casino, three hotels, a shopping mall, convention facilities, a showroom and a spa built on approximately 300 acres of land along Route 24, tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell said.

Cromwell said the proposal is an economic opportunity for the tribe and a chance for Fall River to bring in thousands of temporary construction jobs and permanent jobs in the casino and hotels.

The deal positions the Mashpee Wampanoags and Fall River near the top of a short list of possible locations for casinos as lawmakers consider a bill to expand gambling in the state, including the licensing of a limited number of casinos.

Cromwell said the state should enter into a casino compact with the tribe.

“We will negotiate with the state based on our sovereign rights,” Cromwell said. “It makes sense for the state to deal with us now because it’s inevitable that the land will go into trust.”

The tribe initially had considered a location in Middleborough before settling on Fall River, which Cromwell called “a more appropriate site.”

Fall River Mayor William Flanagan called the casino “a great project” that will add jobs and bring in needed revenue for the city’s police and fire departments, schools, roads and buildings. Fall River has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the state.

“We have a location. We have investors. We have land. We are shovel ready and we are ready to go,” Flanagan said. “All (state lawmakers) need to do is give us a green light and away we can go.”

The tribe says it has the financial backing of Arkana Ltd., a Malaysian investment group that tribe officials said also helped bankroll the Foxwoods Resort and Casino in Connecticut in 1992 and the Seneca Niagara Casino in New York in 2002.

Cromwell said the three planned hotels would be designed to appeal to the casino, convention and leisure market.

The Mashpee Wampanoags are one of two federally recognized tribes in Massachusetts with the right to operate a casino once the state passes a law allowing expanded gaming.

A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court last year found that land owned by tribes recognized by the federal government after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act could be subject to some state regulation, including bans on casinos.

Under the proposal, the tribe says it would work with Massachusetts officials to develop a contract that would provide money to the state.

Fall River isn’t the only community hoping to play host to a casino.

Casino advocates in the western Massachusetts town of Palmer are pushing for an early referendum question that would express local voter support for a casino there. A similar casino question was approved by a wide margin in Palmer in 1997.

Operators of Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun casino last year opened an office in Palmer to build public support for a casino.

Gov. Deval Patrick said he’s working with lawmakers to get a casino bill to his desk, but key details still need to be worked out. The bill will likely require an independent agency to review each casino proposal before licenses are awarded, he said.

“We’re a couple of steps from all this,” he said. “I got to do what I have to do here, and I guess local communities will do what they want to do.”

The Massachusetts House passed legislation earlier this year that would let the state license two resort casinos while also allowing up to 750 slot machines at each of the state’s four racetracks.

The House bill requires local voters to approve a referendum before a casino could be placed in their community.

The Senate has yet to release its version of the bill. Senate President Therese Murray has said she is skeptical about allowing slot machines at racetracks.

Patrick is also skeptical of racetrack slots, fearing they would draw business away from casinos, but has stopped short of threatening to veto any bill that includes racetrack slots.