Updated Nov. 23
The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah has asked Gov. Charlie Baker to enter into negotiations for a Class III casino compact, according to a letter sent by the tribe to Baker.
In a letter dated Sept. 8, Aquinnah Wampanoag chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais requests the compact negotiations. A Class III casino under the state’s gambling laws would allow for slot machines and table games such as blackjack and roulette.
The document became public at Monday’s select board meeting in Aquinnah. Town counsel Ron Rappaport said he requested a copy on Nov. 15 during a conference call with Baker’s office.
“I think that it’s important for this letter to be shown to our community and shared with our community,” Tom Murphy, Aquinnah select board member, said.
Board members had no further comment.
Baker’s press office did not immediately return a call seeking comment. A spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Gaming Commission said she would check to see if the request is on the commission’s radar. The state has two Class III casinos — one in Everett and the other in Springfield, as well a slot parlor in Plainville. A third Class III casino license set aside for southeastern Massachusetts has never been awarded by the state because of legal issues involving the state’s other federally recognized tribe — the Mashpee Wampanoag.
Under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), federally recognized tribes have the right to seek casino licenses in states where gambling is legal.
The Aquinnah tribe, after a protracted legal battle with the state, the town of Aquinnah, and a community association, had its rights to a Class II casino — a so-called bingo hall — affirmed.
The tribe broke ground on the gambling hall in Aquinnah, which would have contained bingo machines, but work was halted by a legal challenge. Due to a legal technicality, the tribe would have to seek building permits and go through the Martha’s Vineyard Commission in order to build on its reservation.
A Class III casino is more likely being considered off-Island because of the size and infrastructure needed to support it. Though no site is mentioned in the letter to Gov. Baker, Andrews-Maltais recently announced to tribe members that the tribe is looking at property in New Bedford to expand services off-Island, where many tribe members live, sources within the tribe told The Times.
Andrews-Maltais did not return a message seeking comment.
“We would like to set up a meeting in the immediate future to discuss and establish a protocol to move forward,” the letter to Baker states. “The tribe looks forward to frank and successful negotiations to establish a regulatory framework for Class III gaming.”
A spokesman for New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said the tribe has not approached the city about a casino there.
In 2018, the New Bedford city council approved sending a letter to the Aquinnah Wampanoag expressing support for a tribal casino in the city. “The city of New Bedford could be poised to host such a casino, given its available space for potential economic development, strong workforce, solid public infrastructure, community support, and nearby location to Rhode Island and Cape Cod,” the motion stated, according to a report in the New Bedford Guide.
In 2012, the Aquinnah Wampanoag had a purchase and sale agreement on 500 acres on the Freetown-Lakeville town line, but that deal fell through when then-Gov. Deval Patrick refused to negotiate a compact with the tribe, and instead set his sights on working with the Mashpee Wampanoag.
The Mashpee tribe has had legal troubles of its own, which have stalled plans that tribe had to build a Class III facility in Taunton.
Terry MacCormack, press secretary in the Baker-Polito administration, said, “The administration received the letter and is reviewing it,” and is communicating with the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe on this topic.
Cliff leases to be considered
The Aquinnah select board plans to meet in January, after the holiday season, to figure out the process of renewing the leases to the shops at the Aquinnah Cliffs. Town administrator Jeffrey Madison said all of the leases will expire on Oct. 1, 2022.
“I’m just looking for some direction here … as to the process of the Cliff leases,” Madison said. “It seems we always have issues … timeliness issues, with extending these expiring leases.”
“I’d like to suggest we have a meeting and review, because there have been some discrepancies out there in the past. Also, to take [leaseholders’] … comments and then come back into and work whatever changes or relations into whatever lease we’re moving toward,” Aquinnah select board member Juli Vanderhoop said.
Aquinnah select board members Tom Murphy and chair Gary Haley agreed with this idea. Haley suggested the tentative January date.
“I just don’t want this to drag on. We still haven’t completed the leases on Menemsha Channel yet, and we’re in the middle of these police negotiations, which have been going on for two years, so let’s just iron out these issues,” Madison said.
Editor George Brennan contributed to this report. Updated with a response from Gov. Charlie Baker’s office.