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Taunton to vote on tribal casino plans Saturday

City could be 1st to give approval

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Hairdressers Diane Roma (left) and Carol Welch are in favor of a casino proposal by the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.

TAUNTON - The Vote Yes sign in the window of Roma’s Hair Fashions on Main Street does not mention a casino, but the reference is clear.

In this struggling mill city, talk in recent weeks has revolved around a single question: Is Taunton ready to embrace Las Vegas-style casino gambling?

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The early evidence suggests that the city, about 40 miles south of Boston, represents the best chance yet for a gambling resort proposal to win a citywide referendum under the 2011 casino law, after a string of defeats in other communities. Voters go to the polls Saturday.

“There are no factories left . . . no stores left,’’ said Carol Welch, who has worked 42 years at Roma’s, which on Wednesday afternoon had chairs open and no patrons. “My heart lies with our customers who will be affected by traffic. But my God Almighty, if it will help some people I am praying for it.’’

The lure of new jobs and millions in tax money appears to have better resonated in this city than in less populous towns that have said no to casino gambling in recent weeks.

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Like a lot of industrial cities in the Northeast, Taunton has struggled to remake its economy in the era after the mills. It lags state averages in the percentage of high school and college graduates among its residents, as well as in per capita income, family income, and poverty level.

“Taunton needs a shot in the arm,’’ said Mayor Thomas Hoye, a supporter of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s casino proposal.

This weekend’s nonbinding referendum will test the tribe’s plan to build a $500 million casino resort at the junction of Routes 24 and 140. The tribe has promised to create 2,500 permanent jobs and has committed to pay the city roughly $13 million a year in lieu of local taxes.

Polling suggests the casino proposal is in a favorable position, days before the vote, with about 57 percent of respondents in support of the project or leaning toward supporting it, according to a new survey by Sage Systems, a Boston political consulting company. Sage is not working for any gambling interest; it has consulted on gambling issues in the past for Suffolk Downs and Wynn Resorts, said Frank Perullo, the company’s president.

About 32 percent respondents oppose the casino or are leaning against it, and 11 percent are undecided, the poll suggests. The survey of 320 registered voters carries a margin of error of 5.45 percentage points.

But the poll results are still too close for supporters to begin counting their chips, said Clyde Barrow, a casino specialist at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, who noted that casino questions often underperform in comparison to polls.

“I would be nervous about those numbers if I was a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe,’’ said Barrow. “We’ve seen similar numbers in Rhode Island and Maine and then seen those proposals go down to defeat.’’

A factor that bodes well for the casino plan is that its supporters appear to have greater intensity than the opponents: 47 percent of respondents are strong supporters of bringing casino gambling to Taunton, according to the survey. Just 24 percent are strong opponents.

Voter intensity is often a measure of which side is more likely to show up and vote.

One of those enthusiastic supporters is Delicia Turner, a cosmetology student at Rob Roy Academy and a fan of Foxwoods casino in Connecticut. “I’d rather spend money in my own town,’’ Turner said. “And yes, it’s all about jobs.’’

Despite promising to create thousands of jobs with their pricey projects, gambling industry developers are still looking for their first ballot box victory in Massachusetts since the state legalized casinos in 2011.

In the past two months, voters in Foxborough, Freetown, and Lakeville have shot down casino proposals. In Foxborough, voters elected casino opponents to the Board of Selectmen, effectively killing a proposal from Wynn Resorts. Freetown voted by a 3-1 ratio in a nonbinding referendum against overtures from the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah to build a tribal casino in the town. Lakeville rebuffed the Aquinnah by a 10-1 ratio.

Even though Saturday’s vote in Taunton is nonbinding, a defeat would be a setback that could disrupt the tribe’s ongoing negotiations with Governor Deval Patrick over how the casino would be regulated and how much money in state taxes, if any, it would pay. Tribal casinos are approved under a federal process, outside of the jurisdiction of the state gambling commission that will approve commercial casino licenses.

Even if the vote passes Saturday, the tribe will face a long road and difficult obstacles to federal approval, including uncertainty about whether the federal government will take the Taunton site into trust for the tribe. Without land in trust, the Mashpee cannot build a tribal casino.

There are several factors that could be making Taunton a more fertile ground for casino support.

For starters, Taunton is more populous and urban than its small-town neighbors of Freetown and Lakeville, and residents of the city are more accustomed to large-scale developments, said Barrow.

Also, the Mashpee plan includes far more detail than any of the previous proposals, including a written mitigation agreement signed with the city. In Foxborough, by contrast, developer Steve Wynn and Robert Kraft, on whose land the casino would be built, were never able to reach anything close to an accord with town leaders.

“In fairness to the other communities, they didn’t have a formal proposal,’’ Hoye said.

Casino backers in Taunton have also enjoyed an overwhelming advantage in political spending, due to a $300,000 contribution by the Mashpee to finance a professional campaign to build support for the project.

“Taunton certainly has its share of economic woes, like anywhere else in the Commonwealth, but I never thought a vote could be bought,’’ lamented Michelle Littlefield, of the anticasino group Preserve Taunton’s Future. “I wonder now if it’s possible.’’

She said it is difficult to fight such a well-funded organization with the $2,000 her group has raised. “I am really hoping we are getting the word out there, and that people see through the glossy mailings.’’

Taunton resident Benjamin Tigano, another opponent, says Taunton should heed neighboring towns before trying to rebuild an economy on casino gambling.

“If it’s this big great thing,’’ Tigano said, “why does nobody else want it?’’

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark
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