Mashpee Wampanoags make a gaming deal with state

The odds appear stacked against the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head.

In front of a crowd of Mashpee Wampanoag tribe members, Gov. Deval Patrick signed a legislature-approved compact with the tribe on Monday afternoon. The deal enables it to operate a casino in Taunton once it secures land in trust from the federal government.

The agreement reserves for the Mashpee tribe the license for a casino in Southeastern Massachusetts, one of three casino licenses in Massachusetts allowed by gaming legislation approved last year.

There was no mention of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) in the official press release announcing the agreement with the Mashpee.

A request for comment by The Times emailed to Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairman of the Gay Head tribe and Slowey/McManus Communication, the Boston firm that represents the tribe, was unanswered as of press time.

In 1994, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (the town had not yet changed its name to Aquinnah) was the only game in town in the push to open a casino in Massachusetts.

Mashpee still faced hurdles on the long road to recognition, something it would finally achieve with the backing of casino developers, and Miami-based Carnival Hotels and Casinos was investing heavily in the Gay Head tribe’s efforts to build a $175 million casino complex on a 170-acre parcel in New Bedford.

A pamphlet mailed to New Bedford residents highlighted the benefits of “The Wampanoag Entertainment Complex.” The tribe estimated the complex would create 5,400 jobs, contribute $400 million to the local economy and that construction would begin in 1996 and be completed within 18 months.

A faded press release said the “Wampanoag Entertainment Complex reflects the diverse and fascinating heritage, tradition and values of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, Aquinnah through a design that integrates land, sea and sky.”

The press release said the interior design would evoke Moshup, the legendary leader of the tribe, and quoted tribal storytellers: When the legends die, the dreams end. When the dreams end, there is no more greatness.”

On Monday, leaders of the Mashpee tribe and Governor Deval Patrick were dreaming of the jobs and money that the Taunton casino are expected to produce.

As part of the deal that includes an agreement for the tribe to share 21.5 percent of gross gaming revenue from a casino with the state, the Patrick administration plans to actively lobby the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Interior Department for approval of the Mashpee tribe’s application for land in trust. “This is a fair deal for the Commonwealth and the tribe,” Mr. Patrick said.

The Department of Interior must also approve the compact, and it could be rejected if the federal government thinks the tribe gave up too much in the agreement. As a sign of cooperation, Mr. Patrick said, his administration plans to file the compact jointly with the U.S. Department of the Interior, a step typically taken by a tribe alone.

Asked whether his tribe gave up too much in the deal, Chairman Cedric Cromwell told the State House News Service, “It’s very equitable. It has meaningful concessions. It’s just not about the revenue share. It’s about the spirit of the compact negotiations and various provisions in it.” Tribe Vice Chairman Aaron Tobey Jr. also called the compact “unique” because there have been very few negotiated by states with landless tribes.

“The connection that the tribe has with mother earth has more value than the revenue sharing in the settlement. That means so much to us. And the governor wasn’t under any obligation to negotiate that with us,” Mr. Tobey said, referring to the governor and Legislature’s decision to set aside a window of exclusive rights to a casino license in southeastern Massachusetts.

Had the governor not signed off on the compact, under the new expanded gaming law, the state gaming commission would have been required to seek commercial bids for casinos in Southeastern Massachusetts.

Federal law requires states that allow gaming to negotiate gaming agreements with federally recognized tribes, and it gives broad rights to those tribes to construct gambling facilities on lands held “in trust” for them by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

The Mashpee tribe has plans to construct a $500-million resort casino in the Liberty and Union Industrial Park at the intersection of Routes 24 and 140 in Taunton.

The 15-year agreement would automatically renew, according to the Patrick administration, unless the state or the tribe provides notice for modification or non-renewal. The compact has an exclusivity clause that would reduce the tribe’s revenue sharing percentage to 15 percent if another casino were to open in the southeast region of the state.

For example, should the Gay Head tribe secure a foothold on the mainland, it too could apply to take land into trust and pursue a casino.

But there is a hitch. Unlike the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe, which owns land held in trust on the Vineyard, the Mashpee tribe must apply to take the Taunton industrial park land into the federal trust.

Several lawmakers from the southeast region have expressed concern about the lack of an opt-out clause in the compact, which would allow the state to seek a commercial bidder in the region if land negotiations with the federal government drag on.

Outmaneuvered at every turn by their mainland cousins, the Aquinnah tribe has said that it would turn its as-yet unused community center in Aquinnah into a “boutique” casino.

At a general membership meeting of the Aquinnah tribe on May 6, a fraction of the membership voted to use their long unfinished community center for Class II gaming.

Class II gaming encompasses high stakes bingo, poker, pull-tab cards and associated electronic games that do not require coin slots. Unlike class III gaming, which encompasses all types of gaming and requires a tribe-state agreement, tribes may regulate Class II gaming on their own lands without state authority, as long as the state in which the tribe is located permits that type of gaming.

The steel frame for the unfinished and unused building where the tribe would house a Class II gaming facility was erected in the summer of 2004 by Air Force reservists as part of a civil engineering training exercise.

But any effort to turn the community center into a casino would come with a price tag. Laura J. Feldman, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), told The Times that in June, HUD sent the tribe a letter “informing them that if the tribe decided to proceed with an ineligible use of the property, they could do so provided that HUD is reimbursed the current fair market value of the property.”

HUD and the tribe agreed that the cumulative amount of funds awarded to the tribe for the project, $500,000 in fiscal year 2000, and $600,000 in fiscal year 2009, “for a total of $1,100,000, would represent the fair market value of the property and that amount would be reimbursed to HUD should the tribe proceed with their plans for the building.”

Aquinnah selectmen have said they would oppose any effort to develop a casino in the Island’s smallest town. Town counsel Ron Rappaport has said the Wampanoag Tribal Council of Gay Head Inc. cannot legally operate a gaming casino in Aquinnah, based on the terms of the 1983 Settlement Act that led to federal recognition for the tribe.