Casinos battle for right to game in Massachusetts

By Jason Savio

4/25/2016

The Wampanoag tribe of Mashpee is all in on its plans to build a casino in Taunton.

Of the more than 500 federally recognized Native American tribes in the United States,  almost half of them own at least one gaming operation, whether it be big or small.  Currently making an effort to be the next to open a resort casino is the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe. But as with all things gaming, risk is involved. In the case of the Wampanoags, it comes in the form of a competing casino.

The proposed $500 million resort casino named First Light is the first major foray into gaming for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe and would be a blockbuster gaming facility in the state.

After having been granted land in trust this past year by the federal government, making about 321 acres of its land—150 of which is located in Taunton—sovereign and open to gaming, the Mashpee Wampanoags’ long gestating effort to go forth with building a casino in the southeastern region of Massachusetts gained a major boost.

“As long as I’ve known the tribe, the tribe has always had an interest in building a casino on some of its land,” said Mark Forest, executive director of the Delahunt Group as well as counsel to and spokesman for the Wampanoag tribe. “It’s been pretty open in expressing its desire to not do it on the Cape but to do it elsewhere.”

But it hasn’t been an easy road to get to where they are now and it isn’t getting any easier, explained Forest, who said that the “system is rigged against tribes” and that federal policy is often times “scandalous.”

Piled atop that deck right now is a lawsuit filed by Taunton residents who are challenging the legitimacy of the Department of Interior’s decision to grant the land in trust to the Wampanoag tribe, a potentially major hurdle that could stop the casino from becoming a reality if the Wampanoags were to lose the land in trust.

The Taunton residents aren’t alone in their attempt to overturn the decision, however. Mass Gaming and Entertainment, a subsidiary of Chicago-based Rush Street Gaming, is backing the lawsuit. Spearheaded by Chairman Neil Bluhm, Rush Street Gaming would like to be the only casino in the southeastern region of Massachusetts, and it plans on doing so by building one in Brockton and blocking First Light from coming to fruition. But first Mass Gaming and Entertainment needs to acquire the coveted single gaming license for the southeastern region of Massachusetts by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. The Wampanoag tribe is no longer bound to this rule thanks to its land in Taunton becoming sovereign.

Under the State Gaming Act in Massachusetts, only three destination resort casinos can operate in the state, each designated by geographic location: The Greater Boston area (Region A), the western part of the state (Region B), and the southeastern part (Region C). The state is not required to issue one out for every single region if it doesn’t want to, but with First Light facing a challenge, the state doesn’t want to lose out on the tax revenue a casino could supply, so is considering the Brockton proposal in case First Light falls apart.

“Our position is that the Gaming Commission is overstepping their boundary in considering a license for a casino in Brockton,” said Forest. “The law is very clear, the Commonwealth, when it set up the Expanded Gaming Act, basically authorized three destination resort casinos in three different regions: one in western Massachusetts, one for the Greater Boston area and portions of the north shore, and the other one southeastern Massachusetts. Under the law, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe was to get first crack, and that’s our interpretation of the law and that was pretty clear during the debate and the deliberations and discussions on it.”

For Mass Gaming and Entertainment’s part, they believe the court will rule in their favor.

“I think the citizens who filed the lawsuit have a very strong case,” said Mass Gaming and Entertainment spokeswoman Kristen Cullen. “Mass Gaming and Entertainment is very confident that they will succeed and overturn the land in trust ruling.”

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A rendering of the proposed casino for Brockton. Photo courtesy Kristen Cullen

The state itself has a major decision to make, and its choice would shape the landscape of gaming in the region for years to come. If it denies the license to the developers in Brockton, it would receive 17 percent of gaming revenue from First Light as part of a deal it made with the Wampanoag tribe in 2013 that promised them to be the only casino in southeastern Massachusetts. However, if the state puts all of its eggs in the proverbial basket that is First Light and that basket breaks, it could lose out on the backup opportunity with casino in Brockton.

Sean Murphy writes for the Boston Globe and covers casino related news, including the developing story concerning the competing casinos in Taunton and Brockton.

“Mainly it comes down to money, it’s all about money,” said Murphy. “How does the state get the maximum amount of tax revenue? The Gaming Commission doesn’t know that the tribe is going to be absolutely certain to build a casino at all given that there’s this pending lawsuit against the legitimacy of its reservation, so the Gaming Commission has to factor that into consideration. On the other hand, if they approve Brockton, they’re pretty much guaranteed to get a tidy revenue stream from Brockton which would be 25 percent of its gaming revenue. But it would face the possibility that down the road—or even earlier—Brockton would have to compete with casinos operated in Taunton by the tribe.”

If that came to be the case, the First Light casino in Taunton would be paying no tax since the state fell back on its agreement with them, thereby giving First Light the competitive edge by freeing up money to offer promotions like free hotel rooms, causing the Brockton casino to do poorly, explained Murphy. The consequence of this for the state would be that it would get overall less tax revenue back from the fledgling casino in Brockton.

Site of First Light groundbreaking
Site of First Light groundbreaking

Despite the pending litigation and opposition, the Wampanoag tribe of Mashpee hasn’t slowed down its plans to go ahead with building First Light. Ir announced plans to open in summer 2017 at a news conference in Taunton City Hall. The April 5 groundbreaking ceremony on the site of First Light further cemented the tribe’s determination and view on the matter.

About Jason Savio 4 Articles
Jason Savio is a graduate of the master's program in journalism at Emerson College in Boston. He also writes entertainment features and reviews music and video games. When not working, he enjoys spending time with his dog, Oscar.