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Metro

Tribe’s headstart tempers casino fever in region

Developers passing up Southeastern Mass.

“The best thing I would have gotten out of it would have been a lawsuit,” said Geroge Carney, owner of Raynham Park, on a deal with the tribe.

Josh Reynolds/Associated Press

“The best thing I would have gotten out of it would have been a lawsuit,” said Geroge Carney, owner of Raynham Park, on a deal with the tribe.

The state’s new casino law was meant to give the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe a headstart toward winning the right to open a casino in the southeastern region, but local officials are questioning whether the tribe’s advantage has, in fact, set their region behind.

Major casino developers are passing over Southeastern Massachusetts in their rush to lock up land and begin building public support to compete for the right to open resort casinos in the two other regions designated by the legislation, officials complain.

“I think that the southeast region is going to be seriously hampered by this special tribal clause in the law,’’ said Allin Frawley, a selectman in Middleborough, where the tribe agreed four years ago to locate a casino before walking away from the deal.

Under the new law, casinos would be allowed in three regions of the state, with one each in Greater Boston/Worcester, Western Massachusetts, and Southeastern Massachusetts.

The law gives the tribe the first shot to win the rights to open the casino in the state’s southeast, if the tribe can secure land and finalize a compact with Governor Deval Patrick by July 31. If the tribe fails, the casino rights to the southeastern region would be opened to all commercial bidders.

“No matter who gets the license, it’s going to be delayed,’’ said Frawley, “and Southeastern Mass. is going to get the short end of the stick.’’

Officials in the region, which has been beset by high unemployment, fear that casino developers would lose interest if the region is the last one out of the gate. If gambling expands in Rhode Island, their plight could be even direr, they said.

“The major casino developers will look at our area as having limited market potential because everyone has gotten used to going someplace else’’ for resort-style casino gambling, said David Alves, a New Bedford city councilor.

“It’s not fair to us that we now have to go to the back of the line and have a year’s wait,’’ he said. “The Indians had their shot for years, and they have done little or nothing.’’

State officials gave the tribe the head start with the understanding that before Massachusetts can approve any casino plans, the state will need months to create a bureaucracy to oversee casino gambling. The state is unlikely to be ready to award any development rights until well into next year.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think it necessarily disadvantages the southeast,’’ said Clyde Barrow, a specialist on casinos who teaches at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

The tribe has not announced any potential sites for a casino under the new legislation and has declined to answer questions about its search for land.

Meanwhile, national casino developers are announcing ever-grander plans for the other two zones.

At least four major casino companies have expressed interest in the western region: Mohegan Sun is proposing a casino in Palmer; Ameristar Casinos is interested in Springfield; the Hard Rock casino chain likes Holyoke; and Penn National Gaming is also interested.

In the Greater Boston-Worcester zone, Caesars Entertainment is proposing a casino at Suffolk Downs; Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn wants to lease land from New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft for a Foxborough gambling resort; and developer David Nunes, chairman of Ajax Gaming Ventures, has said he will propose a casino in Milford.

“When you compare the southeast with the other regions, it’s clear that the guaranteed license to the tribe has had an impact in terms of people being unwilling to commit themselves to this region for fear of being frozen out by the Indian tribe,’’ Barrow said.

Two casino proposals have been pitched in New Bedford, in the Southeastern region, but neither has announced partnerships with the tribe or any major casino developer, Barrow said. A company behind one of those pitches, KG Urban Enterprises, is suing in federal court to overturn the provision giving the Mashpee Wampanoag an inside track on the southeastern casino; the lawsuit could cause further delays.

Raynham Park owner George Carney said he broke off talks with the tribe about eight to 10 weeks ago, deciding to forgo a partnership in a full-blown casino in favor of pursuing, without the tribe, the right to open a slots-only gambling parlor, one of which will be allowed in the state under the casino legislation.

Carney said that the tribe seemed “like a ship without a rudder’’ in its pursuit of a casino and that he is relieved he did not team up with it. “The best thing I would have gotten out of it would have been a lawsuit,’’ he said.

Kenneth Fiola Jr., executive vice president of the Fall River Office of Economic Development, said it is unclear where the tribe will find land or if it will meet the deadline. “I know they’re kicking the tires at different locations,’’ he said, “but the clock is ticking.’’

In addition to Raynham, the tribe has quietly investigated land in Bridgewater, according to several sources.

“It’s a real quagmire,’’ Fiola said. “I don’t think anyone in Southeastern Mass. is happy with the legislation. There’s a prevailing attitude that we’re getting dumped on.’’

One other question facing the tribe is whether it will have the credibility to present another casino proposal to municipal officials, after highly touted plans in Middleborough and then Fall River fell through.

“They cried wolf so many times,’’ Frawley said. “While they were walking down the aisle with us, they were winking at the bridesmaids.’’

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com.

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