Wampanoag tribe anticipates bingo millions

In court documents, the Wampanoag tribe said its proposed bingo hall would provide much-needed revenue, but details remain scarce.

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) plans to appeal a judge’s decision barring the use of its community center for gaming. – MVTimes file photo — File photo by Nelson Sigelman

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) expects to reap almost $400,000 per month — $4.5 million in the first year of operation — from its planned gaming hall, money that is sorely needed to fund a variety of tribal programs, according to court documents filed in connection with a hearing in federal court last week, at which the town of Aquinnah successfully argued that the tribe ought to halt construction pending a hearing on August 12.

On Tuesday, July 28, U.S. District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV issued a preliminary injunction that ordered the Wampanoag tribe to stop any work to turn its unfinished community center building into a gaming facility without first complying with the permit requirements of the town of Aquinnah, pending further order of the court.

Court documents shed some light on the financial outlines of an effort that tribal members say has generally been shielded from view or examination within the tribe. The tribe’s outdated website provides no information on the gaming effort.

In a four-page statement in opposition to the town request for a preliminary injunction, Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairman of the Wampanoag Gaming Corporation, argued that any delays in the construction of the gaming facility would be costly to the tribe.

She said the gaming corporation “has engaged the services of an established firm to provide a marketing study regarding the viability of a Class II gaming facility on the tribe’s existing trust lands. That firm’s forecasts indicate that the gaming facility will generate $4,540,000 in governmental revenue in year one, and $4,730,000 in year two and $4,930,000 in year three, or an average of $394,444 per month for the first three years.”

Ms. Andrews-Maltais provided no information on the source of the study, but said the tribe would provide “actual forecasts and relevant contracts” if the court required that information, but asked that it remain under seal because it contains confidential and proprietary information.

Ms. Andrews-Maltais described the corporation as “a tribally chartered and wholly-owned corporation” governed by a five-member board appointed by the tribal council, of which she is the highest ranking officer.

In an earlier deposition filed in connection with the ongoing lawsuit against the tribe, Tribal Chairman Tobias Vanderhoop revealed that the corporation is chartered by the tribe. It is not registered with the state of Massachusetts.

A hearing is scheduled August 12 before Judge Saylor on cross-motions for summary judgement in the overarching case that began in December 2013, when Gov. Deval Patrick filed suit to block the tribe from moving forward with a gaming facility on Martha’s Vineyard. The fundamental legal issue is the extent to which the settlement agreement limits the tribe’s ability to build a casino, either in southeastern Massachusetts or on tribal lands on Martha’s Vineyard. Signed by tribal leadership in 1983, and ratified by the state legislature in 1985 and by Congress in 1987, the settlement agreement stipulated that the tribe was subject to local and state laws and zoning regulations in effect at the time.

The legal question still to be settled is whether the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) signed in 1988 trumps the settlement act Congress approved in 1987.

‘Sorely needed’

In his eight-page statement filed last week in opposition to the town’s request for a preliminary injunction, Mr. Vanderhoop described the composition of the tribal membership, which currently stands at 1,289.

Of those, 315 live on Martha’s Vineyard, while the majority live in high concentrations within Suffolk, Norfolk, Bristol, Plymouth, Barnstable, and Worcester counties, he said.

“Many of those members living off of the Island of Martha’s Vineyard do so because the cost of living is high compared to the career opportunities available to them,” Mr. Vanderhoop said, “but many have remained in southeastern Massachusetts in order to be as close to their tribal homelands and family as possible.”

Mr. Vanderhoop said the tribe “currently has no economic base of its own” and is “almost entirely dependent on federal funds to support all governmental operations.”

Mr. Vanderhoop described the history of the tribe’s efforts to gain a mainland casino toehold, which had resulted in accumulating “significant debt.”

Without gaming, he said, the tribe cannot meet the goals of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), which is designed “to bring tribes from dependence on the federal government to self-sufficiency.”

Mr. Vanderhoop said the gaming operation is intended to provide “sorely needed revenue to the tribe.” The list of uses includes elder programs, youth programs, court system, law enforcement, education, health care, housing, and environmental protection.

“With the development of the gaming operation, the tribe will also be able to provide jobs not only for our members, but for members of the greater community,” he said. “Those jobs will include employment at the gaming facility, as well as employment at all the ancillary businesses that will support the operation, such as shuttles, laundry, food vendors and others.”

Not referenced is the sale of liquor. On July 19, the Federal Register included a notice published by the tribe under the auspices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) titled “Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) Liquor Control Ordinance.”

The ordinance helps clear the way with the BIA for the tribe to sell and serve liquor “at tribal gaming facilities, tribal hotels, concert venues, and golf courses,” according to the listing in the Register. Local and state approval is still needed.

Referring to the building slated to become a bingo hall, Mr. Vanderhoop said it was originally intended to be a community center. “However, the tribe did not have the funds necessary to complete the community center, and the building has been vacant and unfinished for over 10 years.”

The 6,500-square-foot building was erected at taxpayer expense just off the entrance road to the tribal lands by two teams of Air Force reservists in 2004 and 2005 as a civil engineering community project. The shell sat dormant and unfinished after the citizen-soldiers departed. There is no record that the tribe made any effort to raise funds among its members or within the wider community to finish the project.

If it moves forward with a gaming facility, the tribe would be on the hook for approximately $1.2 million in Housing and Urban Development grants appropriated for the community center.

Cultural impact

Even as tribal leaders move forward with plans for a bingo hall, Island tribal members are mounting an effort to stop it.

In a meeting last month called to discuss opposition to the gaming hall, members of the Wampanoag tribe that included two former chairmen of the tribe, Beverly Wright and Donald Widdiss, Aquinnah selectman and tribal member Julianne Vanderhoop, and Kristina Hook, a former member of the tribal council, decried the lack of any information or openness within the tribe about its business plan.

Speakers said that an Aquinnah-based bingo parlor would be an economic and cultural folly. Ms. Wright, a former five-time chairman of the Wampanoag Tribe from 1991 to 2004, said off-Island tribal members need to be convinced that they have made the wrong decision.

A petition signed by 73 members of the tribe has set the stage for a vote by the tribal membership on Sunday, August 16, on whether to proceed with the bingo hall. Two earlier votes favored construction. In each case, mainland tribal residents turned the tide.

The petition submitted to the tribal council states that the community center was to be used “for cultural arts and educational classes, after school activities, a child day care center, elder’s center, and gymnasium for community events and public recreation.”

The petition states, “We the undersigned, being eligible voters, believe that gaming on ancestral lands will dramatically impact our culture, and believe that the social costs will far outweigh the uncertain economic benefits.”