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Mashpee tribe breaks ground on casino in Taunton

Prior to the groundbreaking ceremony for the First Light Resort & Casino in Taunton, Cedric Cromwell (left), Tribal Council chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoags, spoke to a crowd that included Mashpee Wampanoag Pow Wow Princess Abigail Peters (foreground). Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

TAUNTON — With a resounding crash, a corner of a vacant building crumpled into a tangle of sheet metal and shattered glass. Construction of the First Light Resort & Casino, a dream of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe for decades, had officially begun.

“It’s a proud day for my people,” said Roland Tobey, 74, who traveled from Connecticut to the Mashpee’s tribal reservation here to celebrate the casino’s official groundbreaking Tuesday. “It’s been a long time coming.”

The festive ceremony marked a breakthrough for the $1 billion resort casino, which tribe leaders say will be one of the flashiest in the world. The tribe plans to open a gambling hall, which will feature thousands of slot machines and table games like roulette, blackjack, and craps, by June 2017. Work on the rest of the project, including three hotels, will continue until 2020.

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Little Miss Wampanoag Daycia Frye waved to the crowd at the ceremony.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

If the ambitious timetable holds, the Taunton casino will become the first full-scale gambling facility to open in Massachusetts.

“We did it and we did it together,”  Tribal Council chairman Cedric Cromwell told a crowd of about 500 tribe members, elected officials, and union construction workers. “This resort casino will rival any casino in the country.”

The tribe announced its construction plans three weeks ago, a move that may influence the state Gaming Commission’s upcoming decision on a casino license for Southeastern Massachusetts. The commission will decide whether the tribe will have exclusive rights to the region or if a rival casino planned for Brockton, just 20 miles away, can also move forward. Mass Gaming & Entertainment hopes to build a $677 million casino on the site of the Brockton Fairgrounds.

As a Native American tribe, the Mashpee have the right to open a casino without the state’s blessing, creating the prospect of two large casinos operating in close proximity. The tribe also previously reached an agreement with the state to pay 17 percent of its gambling revenue to Massachusetts if the state does not license a competitor in the region.

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Mass Gaming & Entertainment has argued that its casino proposal is a safer bet to open in a timely fashion because of a lawsuit against the tribe’s plan, filed by Taunton property owners who are challenging the federal government’s designation of the casino site as an Indian reservation.

Mass Gaming & Entertainment’s lawyers say the lawsuit could drag on for a decade or more. But lawyers for the Mashpee say the tribe plans to move forward while the lawsuit is pending, and are confident the tribe will prevail in court.

The groundbreaking had the feel of a family reunion, as tribe members packed a large tent set up for the event.

“It’s an amazing day,” said Desiree Hamlin, 32, who came with her uncle, aunt, cousins, and three children. “I just wish my mother could be here to witness it.”

Hamlin’s mother, Dorothy, died two years ago.

“A day like this, it’s a beautiful blessing,” she said.

A rendering of the casino and hotel complex.Steelman Partners/AP

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