Town seeks payment for dead casino deal

Middleborough officials have sent a demand to the Mashpee Wampanoag for $1 million in planning payments, part of a deal they say was forged with the tribe in 2007 to site a $1 billion gaming complex in the town.

The Native American tribe eventually abandoned its plan in Middleborough and sought another host for its casino project — first in Fall River, then most recently in Taunton on a tract off Route 140, near the Silver City Galleria Mall.

But a deal’s a deal, Middleborough officials said last week.


On Monday, selectmen voted to send a letter to Wampanoag tribal leader Cedric Cromwell seeking four years of “overdue” payments.

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The request was short and sweet: Citing Section 5-A of the intergovernmental contract the tribe and the town signed, officials said they are owed preopening mitigation payments of $250,000 a year and it is time to pay up. The letter was copied to US Representative William Keating, a Democrat from Bourne, as well as to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Under the 2007 contract, the validity of which remains the subject of dispute, the town was to receive $7 million annually in casino revenue, $250 million in infrastructure improvements, and the planning funds, which officials said would have paid for the community’s time and trouble in preparing for, and then hosting, the facility.

“They take the position the agreement isn’t in effect, and we take the position it is,’’ Middleborough Town Manager Charles Cristello said. “We have the agreement on our side.”

Middleborough officials have sent a bill to the Mashpee Wampanoag every year for the past four years, but the tribe denies any deal is in place, Cristello said. The tribe had sent the town three payments totaling $750,000 before it decided to bail out of Middleborough in 2009.


A tribe spokeswoman said Wednesday that leaders could not comment on a letter they had not received.

But in a 2012 response to Middleborough’s request for payment, the tribe’s attorney, Howard M. Cooper, said leaders had increasing concerns about the town’s “irresponsible, false, and improper” efforts to promote a meritless claim through the media.

Cooper said in the letter to selectmen that the tribe wondered whether the aim was to thwart its plans in Taunton.

“The tribe has long made it clear it had no obligation to go forward with a casino in Middleborough,’’ Cooper said, describing the 2007 deal with the town as a “nonexclusive” agreement.

At the height of the casino conversation, the proposed 500-acre complex off Precinct Street would have featured a two-story gaming facility with 200 gaming tables, 4,000 slot machines, almost a dozen restaurants, retail shops, and a gas station. It had an entertainment center, a luxury hotel, and parking for 10,000 cars, according to the deal.


Discussions also included potential plans for an 18-hole golf course and other family entertainment.

But environmental issues, including wetlands concerns, raised eyebrows, as did the parcel’s proximity to struggling waterways like the Nemasket River, which runs through town and is historically a spawning ground for herring.

The site is a habitat for other potentially endangered species, like the Eastern box turtle, and opponents also feared that the casino complex could adversely affect the integrity of ground water and that waste-water disposal could pollute natural resources.

Middleborough residents and officials went out of their way to accommodate the tribe and work with its leadership to plan a casino, Cristello said, “only to be slapped in the face.”

The local debate over the casino plan was so contentious that it split the town in two, Cristello said. Some relationships were so harmed by the disagreement that people are still not talking to each other, he said.

“The only good it did was to energize a lot of people who came out and got involved in the town,’’ Cristello said. “But the good doesn’t outweigh the bad.”

Selectmen chairman Stephen McKinnon, who moved to town in 2005, stepped up to run for office to be sure his voice was heard.

“As far as I’m concerned, we still have a contract,’’ McKinnon said.

He pointed to language in the pact with the tribe that says the relationship can only be broken if both parties agree. The town has not agreed, McKinnon said.

He said the Wampanoag took advantage of Middleborough, coming in like gangbusters and then disappearing just as quickly when a host of problems got in the way, including when former tribal leader Glenn Marshall resigned amid fraud and embezzlement charges and backers of the project disappeared.

“Everybody saw dollar signs when they proposed it,’’ McKinnon said, referring to the tribe.

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton