The Mashpee Wampanoag Indian tribe may learn within 30 days whether the federal government will back its bid to open a $500 million casino in Taunton, a development that could clear up uncertainty surrounding the state’s Southeastern Massachusetts casino license.
Tribal representatives expressed optimism over an Aug. 21 letter from the US Bureau of Indian Affairs informing the tribe that a decision is imminent, even though the letter does not indicate how the bureau will rule.
“This is a sign of progress in that the tribe’s application is being worked on and it remains a priority,” said Arlinda Locklear, the Washington-based lawyer representing the tribe. “It is a hopeful sign, but it doesn’t tell us what the decision is or when exactly it will be made.”
Tribal chairman Cedric Cromwell said he anticipates a favorable decision.
“We have always been confident in our prospects,” he said.
Mayor Tom Hoye of Taunton said the casino, which is proposed for a parcel of land currently occupied by an industrial park, would give his city “a great economic boost.”
“It would be great to have it move forward because it promises needed revenue for the city and jobs for the region,” he said. “But it would also be great to have it finally decided, because it has been a very slow process.”
The Mashpee Wampanoag are asking the federal government to take 150 acres of land in Taunton into trust for them, and to declare it as reservation land, which would allow them to exercise their rights as a federally recognized tribe to open a casino.
Uncertainty surrounding the tribe’s casino proposal has impeded the state Gaming Commission’s effort to award the third and final resort casino license authorized under the 2011 state casino law.
That license is reserved for the Southeastern Massachusetts region, which includes the tribe’s reservation in Mashpee and the land it hopes to add as reservation land in Taunton. When lawmakers enacted the state casino law, they envisioned awarding the license to the Mashpee.
For years, the Gaming Commission delayed consideration of commercial casino proposals for that region in deference to the Mashpee, but when tribal plans appeared to become entangled in conflicting legal rulings, the commission agreed to forge ahead with alternative proposals.
Developers of casino proposals for sites in Brockton and New Bedford submitted detailed bids for the license this year, and residents in each city voted in favor of welcoming casinos to their cities. But the prospect of the Mashpee breaking through the bureaucratic logjam in Washington continued to cast a shadow.
Last month, KG Urban, a New York-based developer, announced it would withdraw its bid for a casino in New Bedford, after having spent $10 million and eight years pursuing it. The developer said it could not obtain adequate financing, in part due to the possibility of future competition from a tribal casino in Taunton. That leaves a consortium including Brockton racetrack owner George Carney as the only remaining applicant.
The Gaming Commission, in a statement released Wednesday in reaction to the letter, said it would continue with its consideration of the Brockton casino proposal, but would “also take into consideration the totality of factors” in Southeastern Massachusetts before making a final license determination.
Under the terms of an agreement between the state and the Mashpee, a tribal casino in Taunton would pay to the state a 17 percent tax on its revenues, compared to 25 percent that would be paid by a commercial operator.
In its two-page letter, the Bureau of Indian Affairs invited Taunton city officials to offer any comments on the tribe’s application within 30 days. A decision on whether to approve the application will come at some time after the close of that comment period, Locklear said.
“It’s a good sign that they are working on it,” Locklear said. “But it’s not a commitment to a specific date for a decision.”