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With the Mashpee casino in legal tangle, uncertainty reigns

Construction is going full speed ahead at the site of the Wynn Resorts Casino in Everett.
Construction is going full speed ahead at the site of the Wynn Resorts Casino in Everett.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

In Everett and Springfield, resort casinos are beginning to take shape, testaments in concrete and steel to the state’s extended effort to build a billion-dollar industry from scratch.

Both projects have faced setbacks and delays, but are on track to open in two or three years, a breakthrough that will create thousands of jobs and pour millions into the state’s coffers.

But in Southeastern Massachusetts, where a luxury casino was meant as a cornerstone for the state’s casino era, progress has ground to a halt. With the Mashpee Wampanoag’s plans for a $1 billion tribal casino in Taunton tied up in court after prevailing over a rival bid in Brockton, hopes have dimmed that a third full-scale casino in Massachusetts will open any time soon, disappointing a region whose economy badly needs a shot in the arm.

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“We’ve been talking about getting a casino in this region for more than 25 years, and all of a sudden we’re the region that doesn’t have anything,” said Christopher Cooney, chief executive of the Metro South Chamber of Commerce. “It’s extremely frustrating.”

In April, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission voted down plans for a $677 million casino in Brockton, effectively granting the Mashpee exclusive rights to the region. But when a federal judge in July ruled that the US government was wrong to designate the Mashpee’s lands as a sovereign reservation, the tribe was forced to halt construction.

Instead of opening as soon as next summer, the Taunton casino could well face years of legal battles, as proponents of a Brockton casino had argued. Given the uncertainty around the tribe’s status, Brockton Mayor Bill Carpenter said his city’s bid deserves a second look.

“I hope the Gaming Commission would give reconsideration to our application,” he said. “That would be the fair and equitable thing to do. We are a poor, majority-minority city with a lot of families that need the kind of jobs a casino would create.”

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Time is running short, Carpenter and others argue. Rhode Island casinos pose a growing competitive threat, and plans for a new casino in Tiverton, R.I., just over the Massachusetts line, come before voters in November. If that development opens before a Massachusetts counterpart, not counting the modestly sized slot parlor that opened last year in Plainville, Rhode Island may capture both sides of the border, Carpenter said.

“To sit by idly while the state next to you grabs the market, that would be hard to justify to taxpayers,” he said.

Through a spokesman, Neil Bluhm, the casino magnate behind the Brockton bid, said he remains “very interested in pursuing a casino in Brockton,” noting that the city, one of the state’s poorest, “could use the jobs and revenue.”

“A casino in Brockton will be a catalyst for economic development and also contribute badly needed tax revenue to the Commonwealth,” he said.

But whether the Mashpee’s legal plight convinces the state Gaming Commission to reconsider Brockton, or welcome new bids, is far from clear. Commission members said a Brockton casino would have faced strong competition from a tribal casino in Taunton, just 20 miles away, and that possibility remains intact. Tribes have the right to build casinos on reservations without state permission.

At the same time, the increasing risk of having no full-scale casinos south of Boston may come to outweigh the risk of having two.

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“This region is falling further behind in realizing the economic development promised in the casino law,” said Richard McGowan, a Boston College professor and gambling specialist.

An April groundbreaking for the Mashpee Wampanoag casino in Taunton came prior to a construction halt.
An April groundbreaking for the Mashpee Wampanoag casino in Taunton came prior to a construction halt.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File 2016

The commission could choose to revisit the Brockton bid, which has the distinct advantage of being all but ready to break ground and would bring in $85 million in state licensing fees.

Or it could begin the process anew, a lengthy path that would require local referendum votes, negotiations with surrounding cities and towns, and extensive background checks on developers.

In a statement, the Gaming Commission stressed that it enjoys wide latitude on how to proceed, but provided no hints as to its plans.

“The statute is clear,” the panel said. “The Gaming Commission has the authority at any time to choose to conduct a commercial process for the award of a license [in Southeastern Massachusetts].”

But Gaming Commission chairman Stephen P. Crosby said in a recent radio interview with WGBH that the commission was “just going to sit tight.”

“We do what we’ve been doing for five years, try to wait and figure out what’s happening with the tribe,” he said.


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