TAUNTON — The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe could begin work on a casino planned for Taunton as early as next spring, and could open it for business within a couple of years, perhaps earlier than gambling resorts already planned for Everett and Springfield, city and tribal officials said Monday.
And when the casino opens, Mayor Tom Hoye said, this city 40 miles south of Boston can expect a renaissance of sorts, adding $8 million a year to its municipal budget, additional police and firefighters, and thousands of new private sector jobs.
The mayor said a casino would add up to 3,500 full- and part-time jobs in this city of 58,000 people, which has struggled to regain its economic footing decades after the textile industries went elsewhere.
The boost may also allow the mayor’s office, along with other municipal offices, to finally be able to move out of its “temporary” quarters in a threadbare former elementary school and back into the city hall building badly damaged by fire in 2010.
“It’s a great day for Taunton, for the tribe, and for Southeastern Massachusetts,” Hoye said at a news conference on Monday.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Hoye, who was joined behind the podium by city councilors and legislators, as well as tribal leaders.
On Friday, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs said it had granted the tribe’s petition to convert 320 acres of land it controls into reservation land.
Almost half of that land is in Mashpee, where the tribe is based, while the remainder is in an industrial park in East Taunton, where the tribe and its financial backers envision a sleek $500 million casino and 600-room hotel, which the tribe is calling “Project First Light.”
It means that for the first time in its history the tribe has an official reservation. The long-sought designation also makes a casino a strong likelihood, because federal law grants tribes a special status to operate gambling on their sovereign reservation land.
The Mashpee previously negotiated an agreement with the state that exchanges the tribe’s promise to pay the state 17 percent of its gambling revenue for the promise not to license a competing casino in Southeastern Massachusetts.
Tribal officials said on Monday that they have already gone through the environmental review process for a $30 million plan to move traffic from busy Route 24 to the casino site off Route 140.
Those improvements could begin in the spring, said tribal council chairman Cedric Cromwell.
The tribe faces the possible obstacle of an appeal of the Bureau of Indian Affairs decision, which essentially concludes that the tribe, long based on Cape Cod, has historical ties to Taunton, almost 50 miles to the west.
A property owner in the vicinity of the casino site could file a lawsuit challenging that decision as unfounded. But on Monday, the tribe’s lawyer, Arlinda Locklear, said she is confident the bureau’s decision will hold up.
A lawsuit, if one is filed, would name the federal government as the defendant, not the Mashpee, and would be defended by the Department of Justice, she said.
“The Justice Department participated in this,” Locklear said of the decision granting reservation land. “The Justice Department is intimately familiar with it and is prepared to defend it.”
Under the agreement with the state, finalized in 2013, the tribe agreed to open and operate its casino under certain regulations of the state gambling commission. But the commission already has a detailed application before it from Mass Gaming & Entertainment, which is proposing a similarly-sized casino about 20 miles north of Taunton in Brockton.
The commission accepted that application after it concluded the Mashpee’s petition for reservation land would likely drag on for years.
Now that the petition has been granted, the commission is forbidden under the compact between the Mashpee and the state to award a license to Mass Gaming & Entertainment. If the commission decides not to honor the compact, the tribe could operate a casino, albeit with some restrictions, while paying the state none of its revenues.
The commission has been silent on what it intends to do, while the Mashpee have pledged to honor the compact. The commission previously licensed an $800 million MGM casino in Springfield and a $1.7 billion Wynn casino in Everett, both slated to open in 2018.