The state gambling commission will address the future of casinos in Southeastern Massachusetts in March, seeking to resolve a long-standing question over whether the region should remain off-limits to commercial casino developers while the Mashpee Wampanoag pursue federal approval for a tribal casino in Taunton.
“It is clearly incumbent upon us to decide this issue soon,” Stephen Crosby, the commission’s chairman, said Thursday.
The board’s movement toward a decision is an incremental victory for those who want the region opened to commercial developers and have complained that further delay leaves the southeast lagging behind the state’s other two regions, where commercial casino companies are pitching proposals worth as much as $1 billion.
On Thursday, the commission scheduled a hearing for March 21 in Southeastern Massachusetts to hear from the tribe and others with a direct stake in the future of casino gambling in the region. After that hearing, the commission will assess whether to open the region to commercial developers, possibly with the condition that it would end the bidding if the Mashpee have a breakthrough in their pursuit of a tribal casino.
The commission has wrestled for months over the fate of casino gambling in the region.
The state’s 2011 casino law authorized up to three commercial gambling resorts, no more than one in each of three regions of the state.
The law initially excludes commercial developers from the southeast to give the Mashpee Wampanoag a head start in developing a tribal casino under federal law.
The tribe selected a site at the junction of Routes 24 and 140, but faces legal obstacles to converting the land to a reservation eligible for tribal gambling.
Under state law, the commission has the power to license a commercial casino in the southeast if it concludes the tribe will be unable to overcome its legal hurdles.
The commission faces two potentially bad options: The longer it waits, the further the southeast region may fall behind the rest of the state.
However, if the commission allows a commercial casino, it risks someday having two casinos in the southeast, if the Mashpee at some point overcome their legal obstacles.
State Representative Robert Koczera, a New Bedford Democrat, favors opening the region to commercial competitors because the federal law governing the creation of new tribal lands is unsettled.
“There’s too much uncertainty to do otherwise,” he said.
The head start provided to the Mashpee Wampanoag in state law is also being challenged in court by KG Urban Enterprises, a developer interested in building a commercial casino in New Bedford.
Andrew M. Stern, managing director for KG Urban, said Thursday that the firm was “extremely pleased” that the commission is turning its attention to the southeast.
“We hope that this action represents a genuine move to open the southeast region in short order to commercial applicants so that the region can have the opportunity to join the fair and competitive commercial licensing process already underway in the Boston and western regions of the Commonwealth,” he said in a statement.
Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag, maintained that the tribe’s plans are on track and that there is no need for the commission to solicit commercial bids.
He said that the tribe’s application for tribal land recenty cleared an initial hurdle and that the federal government is committed to a speedy review of the full application.
The tribe is also close to completing negotiations with Governor Deval Patrick over the terms by which the casino would operate and what percentage of its revenue would go to the state, he said.
That agreement would replace an earlier deal rejected by the federal government for being too onerous on the tribe.
“When the commission considers these facts, as well as how much farther along we are than any other project, an overwhelming vote from the City of Taunton supporting our plans, and an environmental process that will be completed this spring, we are confident that they will agree that making any change to the Southeastern Massachusetts region is unnecessary,” Cromwell said.
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