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Mashpee tribe unveils $500m casino plan

A rendering from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe for the proposed Taunton casino.

A rendering from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe for the proposed Taunton casino.

TAUNTON - In the latest turn in the state’s high-stakes gambling scrum, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe unveiled details of its proposed casino Thursday, describing the $500 million project as a first-class gambling destination and as an economic catalyst for a struggling city.

The 146-acre complex would include three 300-room hotels, a venue for events, and a family-oriented indoor and outdoor waterpark, tribe officials announced. It would also include at least two high-end restaurants, a food court, and as many as 15 retail shops.

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It would be built just off Route 24 in this city of 55,000, about 35 miles south of Boston and 20 miles from Providence.

“The location is ideal,’’ said Michael Speller, former president of Foxwoods and a representative of casino developer Arkana Limited, a Malaysian company that is financing the project. “Overall, we think it’s a great, great, project.’’

In its effort to build local and state support, the tribe released projections showing the casino would create 1,000 construction jobs, with an estimated payroll of $230 million. It would create more than 2,500 permanent jobs, and an estimated $120 million in annual economic benefits to the city.

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“We want to put people back to work,’’ said Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the tribe.

The tribe, which in late February announced it had chosen the property in its longstanding quest for a casino, is currently in negotiations with the city, the Patrick administration, and the federal government. But the outlook is cloudy.

The state’s casino law gives the Native American tribe, which received federal recognition in 2007, a leg up in building a casino on Indian land. But because the chosen site is not sovereign tribal land, the federal government must agree to put the land into trust for the tribe, a legally uncertain proposition after a 2009 Supreme Court ruling.

But Cromwell said he is optimistic the project will advance, and said construction could begin in the next year or two.

“We are confident we will get the land put into trust,’’ which would effectively convert it into tribal land, he said at a morning news conference. “We’re moving down that path well.’’

Tribal leaders are scheduled to meet with federal officials Friday, he said.

The Mashpee’s fate is pivotal for competitors seeking to build a casino in the southeastern part of the state. If a Mashpee bid appears on target, the state’s gambling board will not consider other plans.

Although the project would bypass the state approval process, the tribe is discussing regulatory terms with Governor Deval Patrick, including what portion of revenue the state would receive. Under state law, the tribe must reach an agreement with Patrick by July 31.

“We’ve got some work to finish by the end of July in terms of negotiations with the tribe on the compact,’’ Patrick said Thursday on the “Ask the Governor’’ radio segment on WTKK-FM. “But I think the lawyers are making good progress. There is very open communication.’’

Cromwell declined to comment on financial specifics but said the tribe is “feeling good about the process.’’ He said the tribe does not need federal approval for the site by the state’s July 31 deadline to advance the plans.

On the local front, Mayor Tom Hoye said Taunton is seeking to receive a portion of casino revenue.

“Absolutely,’’ he said, drawing laughs from the audience of politicians, city officials, and tribe members.

Hoye said negotiations with the tribe are proceeding well and would be completed next month before a city vote on the project. He said the city is considering the casino “with its eyes wide open,’’ but described the project as a potentially historic opportunity to put the city on the road to self-sufficiency.

“The next six weeks may be the most important in the history of our city,’’ he said. “We only get one shot at a project of this magnitude.’’

Hoye said he did not view the project as an economic panacea, but said he did not want to be the kind of mayor who let such an opportunity pass.

Unlike other communities where commercial casinos are being proposed, the casino referendum in Taunton, slated for June 9, is nonbinding. But a no vote would carry significant political weight.

The Mashpee tribe has made similar casino announcements in recent years, dating back to its 2007 agreement with Middleborough. Those plans were ultimately abandoned, and a proposal in Fall River also fell through.

In 2009, the tribe dissolved its partnership with two investors to develop the Middleborough casino, and turned to Arkana Limited, an investment group that financed the startups of Foxwoods Resort and Casino in Connecticut in 1992 and the Seneca Niagara Casino in New York in 2002.

Arkana, which specializes in developing and operating resort casinos, is owned by KT Lim, a Malaysian billionaire and chairman of Genting Berhad, one of the world’s largest gambling conglomerates.

One of Lim’s companies is seeking to build a $600 million entertainment and gambling complex in upstate New York. Last year, Genting opened a $450 million gambling facility at a racetrack in Queens.

Genting had planned to build a $3.8 billion development in Miami, featuring the world’s largest casino, before legislative support for a casino bill eroded.

Genting is now pursuing a scaled-down project of a luxury hotel, condominiums, and restaurants at the site of the Miami Herald newspaper, which is relocating, according to published reports.

The Taunton project would be built in several stages over the next five years, Speller said. The first stage, the casino, would be 150,000 square feet and have 3,000 slot machines, 150 table games, and 40 poker tables. Additional gambling space would be added later.

The casino would also feature a 360-degree bar with 200 seats, retail stores, a food court, and an international buffet.

Mark Arsenault of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.
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