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A federal ruling has put the Southeastern Mass. casino license in doubt

An architectural rendering of the resort casino that the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe hopes to build in Taunton.AP/File

The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe received federal approval on Friday to take control of two huge tracts in Southeastern Massachusetts, a long-awaited decision that tribal leaders said brought their dream to build a $500 million resort casino in Taunton that much closer to reality.

“The tribal casino is going forward,” exclaimed chairman Cedric Cromwell in a telephone interview from the tribe’s headquarters in Mashpee.

In the background, jubilant tribe members, who had only gained federal recognition in 2007 after a decades-long odyssey, celebrated receiving permission to treat 150 acres in Taunton and more than 170 in Mashpee as reservation land. Until now, the tribe controlled the land, but it was not designated as an Indian reservation, the key to allowing it to be used for a casino.

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“This is a reclamation of land that was once ours,” Cromwell said. “Tribal lands once stretched from Cape Ann to Rhode Island, and this new reservation represents only a dot on the map, but it feels really good.”

Friday’s decision by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs also had immediate ramifications for the state’s nascent casino industry. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission has been considering a proposal for a resort in Brockton for the state’s last unclaimed commercial casino license.

But under the agreement the Mashpee negotiated with the state in 2013, the tribe would pay the state 17 percent of its gambling revenue in exchange for the state’s promise not to license another casino that would compete with the tribe in Southeastern Massachusetts.

George Carney, a partner in the proposal for a $500 million casino and hotel complex on the Brockton Fairgrounds near Route 123, was not ready to concede defeat Friday.

“Our position is that there is plenty of room for us and the tribe to survive and to do very well,” Carney said. “We can make money with or without them. We are going to continue in our application.”

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Gambling commission members, however, have questioned whether a commercial casino, which would have to pay 25 percent of its revenue to the state, could survive so close to a tribal casino.

Friday’s decision allows the Mashpee to take the Taunton land into trust, a legal prelude to its designation as reservation land. As a federally recognized tribe, the Mashpee have the absolute right to immediately open a casino on their reservation, without the state’s approval, and without sharing any of its revenue with the state. But Cromwell said the tribe would stick to the terms of the 2013 agreement.

“We have a compact and we will stand by it,” he said.

Taunton residents have already voted to welcome a casino into their community, and city officials and the tribe have reached a deal that would pay the city a minimum of $8 million per year, plus about $5 million to help with police, fire, and school budgets.

The Mashpee, however, do face another obstacle. Friday’s decision is expected to be challenged by other landowners in court, which could drag out for years, leaving Southeastern Massachusetts with no casino for the indefinite future.

That possibility led Mass Gaming & Entertainment, the partnership Carney formed with a Chicago-based casino company, to issue a statement trumpeting its readiness to “bring needed revenues, jobs, and economic development to Brockton and the Commonwealth.”

“We believe the Gaming Commission should continue” with the Southeastern Massachusetts licensing process, the statement said.

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The commission released a statement of its own that contained no indication whether it intends to stand by its 2013 agreement to grant the Mashpee exclusivity.

“The decision by the US Department of Interior to approve land into trust is a milestone for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe,” the statement said. “This determination provides further important information for the decisions the Commission must make in the weeks ahead. The Commission looks forward to continuing the discussion about the path forward.”

The Mashpee gained federal recognition in 2007 after decades of trying to persuade the Bureau of Indian Affairs that it had the unbroken history as a unified and self-governing people required to be recognized as a tribe.

Amid the celebration, Cromwell paid tribute to his mother, a longtime tribal official, who died in May at age 75.

“I know she helped the tribe from the other side,” he said. “A lot of people worked very hard on it for a lot of years.”

The state’s only other federally recognized tribe, the Aquinnah Wampanoag of Martha’s Vineyard, also has a proposal to open a casino. But that tribe faces a legal challenge from the state contending the tribe previously gave up its right to open a casino on the island.


Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.