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Mashpee Wampanoag leader silent on possible competitor in Wareham

SouthCoast Today

Tanner Stening

August 26,2019

When Mass Gaming & Entertainment asked state gambling regulators last summer if they would reconsider awarding the company a license to build a casino in Brockton, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe took exception.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission “made it clear,” Tribal Council Chairman Cedric Cromwell said at the time, “that (Mass Gaming & Entertainment) submitted a bad bid that was bad for the Commonwealth.”

A year later, a new developer is proposing a “racino” in Wareham and simultaneously hopes to change state law to give the commission more discretion over regional gaming planning than is made possible under the state’s 2011 Expanded Gaming Act, potentially opening up southeastern Massachusetts — or Region C — to commercial competition.

But the tribe, whose economic well-being depends on the success of a long-stalled $1 billion casino-resort in Taunton, has been silent on the matter for nearly a week. The state negotiated a compact with the Mashpee Wampanoag in which the tribe would pay 17%of its gambling revenue provided it had exclusive rights to a category 1 casino in the region.

On Sunday, Cromwell declined through a spokeswoman to comment on the new mixed-used development bid by Notos Group LLC.

Representatives from Mass Gaming & Entertainment did not respond to requests for comment. The company has lobbied regulators to reconsider the Brockton project after it had been denied by a vote of 4-1 in 2016.

The Wareham project is proposed for a 275-acre parcel off Glen Charlie Road and would include a “thoroughbred racing facility, multi-faceted gaming and entertainment facility, a new ballpark for the Wareham Gateman of the Cape Cod Baseball League, a hotel and a sports field complex designed to provide permanent fields and other athletic facilities” that would be available to the Wareham community and the broader southeastern Massachusetts region, according to company plans.

More than $50 million is promised in revenue to the state, and the company expects to create more than 1,000 permanent jobs and roughly 1,000 construction jobs.

The new proposal comes amid uncertainty over the gaming commission’s plans to reassess the market in Region C. Last summer, commissioners met to discuss the need for a category 1 gaming establishment in Region C, and whether Region C should be reopened for commercial license applications, given the tribe’s ongoing legal troubles. They subsequently solicited public comment, but have not provided the public with an update since.

But Thomas O’Connell, founder of Notos Group LLC, said they commissioned two market studies to analyze the state of thoroughbred racing and category 2 gaming in the region, which found that the Wareham location is fertile ground for a smaller gambling operation because it is some distance from the Plainridge Park, a slots parlor in Plainville, and Encore Boston Harbor, a full casino-resort in Everett. O’Connell said he believes the Wareham facility would repatriate customers who gamble across the border at Rhode Island’s Twin River casinos.

“The true beauty of this report indicates that a great deal of that business will come from repatriation dollars from the Rhode Island market we are currently losing on a daily basis, all the while cannibalizing and destabilizing our commonwealth’s existing license holders,” he said.

O’Connell said the company does not intend to make the studies publicly available, saying they’re proprietary.

In 2013, the commission opened the region to commercial applicants, despite the vocal opposition from the tribe, which at the time was waiting to have its land-in-trust request approved. The tribe is now embroiled in a lawsuit to protect the trust status of its land following a U.S. Department of the Interior decision last year stating that the tribe didn’t qualify under a definition of “Indian” spelled out in the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act for the special designation.

On Sept. 7, the Interior declared that the tribe was ineligible to have land taken into trust because it was not under federal jurisdiction at the time of the passage of the IRA’s passage. Interior officials had previously found in 2015 that the tribe qualified under another definition allowing the federal government to take 321 acres of land in Mashpee and Taunton into trust on the tribe’s behalf.

According to the website for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s First Light Resort and Casino, its Taunton facility would create 4,000 jobs and $102 million in wages for workers in the city as well $24 million in wages for jobs in other parts of the state. An additional 2,990 jobs would be created during construction. If the tribe’s casino faces competition in Region C, it would not have to pay anything to the state.

A category 1 gaming establishment, or class I, is classified by the state as a large-scale casino-resort, and a category 2, or class II, is categorized as a smaller scale slots parlor. The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) are looking to build a category 2 bingo hall on Martha’s Vineyard.

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