The state’s first casino, a slot parlor in Plainville less than a half-hour away from a full-scale casino in Rhode Island, is off to a slow start. Another casino in Tiverton, R.I., just a few hundred yards from the Massachusetts border, is on the horizon.
In Massachusetts, two other proposed casinos, less than 20 miles apart in Brockton and Taunton, are vying for a stake in this crowded gambling landscape. And the choice between them, which the state Gaming Commission is expected to announce in April, is getting more difficult by the day.
The decision rests on a thorny issue the state has grappled with for years — how to handle the aspirations of the Mashpee Wampanoag, a Native American tribe that is seeking to build a $500 million casino in Taunton.
Last month, a group of Taunton landowners, backed by the Brockton developers, sued to block the casino, raising the prospect that the project could be held up for years. Developers who want to build a $677 million casino-and-hotel complex in Brockton have seized on the opportunity, saying their plan would bring a faster payoff of jobs and tax revenue.
But if the Gaming Commission approves the Brockton proposal, the 1,300-member Mashpee tribe has the right to open a casino without the state’s blessing, depriving the state of untold millions and creating a scenario where three casinos —
“It’s an incredibly difficult choice the commission faces,” said Richard McGowan, a Boston College professor who specializes in gambling issues. “If the commission denies the Brockton license and the Mashpee can’t get a casino built, that region goes without a casino. If the commission approves the Brockton license and the tribe goes ahead and builds, then there’s two casinos within 20 miles, and that’s not good either.”
Approving Brockton also means the Mashpee would not have to pay the 25 percent tax required of state-licensed casinos, conferring a massive competitive advantage that would allow the gambling emporium to spend on advertising and perks, such as free slot play, hotel rooms, and tickets to shows.
In a gambling market that may not be able to handle three resort casinos, let alone four, that advantage might prove decisive, specialists said.
Awarding the state's third and final casino license may represent the Gaming Commission’s biggest decision since 2014, when it chose Wynn Resorts’ plan for a casino in Everett over a competing proposal for a plan in Revere at the Suffolk Downs racetrack.
Stephen P. Crosby, chairman of the Gaming Commission, acknowledged the dilemma the panel faces, and the stakes involved.
“The Commission is keenly aware that the Commonwealth’s expanded gaming legislation contemplated only one casino in Southeastern Massachusetts,” he said in a previously released statement. “But it is equally true that the legislation did not contemplate” that region “being left in a state of extended uncertainty” while plans for casinos in the other regions move forward.
“Reconciling these two competing public policy goals fairly is the challenge the Commission is now trying to meet,” he said.
In many ways, the Brockton proposal appears well-qualified for approval. It comes from an experienced and well-financed casino developer, and would be built a short distance from a major highway on a wide swath of land long-targeted for development.
It would bring hundreds of jobs to a city plagued by unemployment, poverty, and crime, and would provide millions for education and public safety, supporters say.
Yet it would also undermine the carefully considered strategy, devised by former governor Deval Patrick and lawmakers, for maximizing revenue from casinos.
When lawmakers were crafting the 2011 casino law, how to deal with the Mashpee was a major sticking point.
Legislative leaders worried that the tribe would use its special status under federal law to open a tax-free casino, and the bill that emerged from Beacon Hill encouraged the tribe to join forces with the state.
The two sides struck a deal — the state would grant the Mashpee exclusive rights to a casino license in Southeastern Massachusetts if the tribe agreed to pay a tax rate comparable to other casinos.
Five years later, the sense of cooperation that once characterized the relationship between the tribe and the state has frayed.
In a recent letter to the Gaming Commission, the tribe’s lawyers said the commission is legally bound by the 2011 agreement, and cannot consider the Brockton proposal unless it specifically finds that the Mashpee plan is at a stalemate, which it has not done.
Reneging on the agreement, the lawyers wrote, would represent “yet one more breach of promises to Native Americans, which have taken place for generations.”
The Gaming Commission, however, maintains it is following “the appropriate process for casino licensing,” and that the tribe’s status will be a “critical variable” in deliberations.
Despite the lawsuit, the tribe says it is moving forward, and on Friday announced that a groundbreaking is planned for April 5.
Mass Gaming & Entertainment, a partnership of Chicago-based developer Neil Bluhm and local businessman George Carney that is behind the Brockton proposal, said its plan carries less risk. The lawsuit against the Mashpee could drag on for years, and without a Brockton casino the region could lose out on the economic benefits of a casino for “as long as a decade,” the group recently wrote the Gaming Commission.
The group argued that the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs had made “serious and obvious” errors in deciding to grant reservation status to the Taunton land, and that similar disputes across the country have cast other tribes into protracted legal limbo.
The Mashpee counters that the lawsuit, which is being financed by Mass Gaming & Entertainment, is a transparent attempt to win the lucrative license.
“Make no mistake, the lawsuit is a desperate attempt by Mr. Bluhm to force the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to approve the plans for a casino in Brockton,” Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell said in a statement released last month. “Clearly, Mass Gaming & Entertainment and Neil Bluhm are taking the low road here.”
Sean P. Murphy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.