Mass. Market: Tribe needs to consider surrounding towns, too
Despite their victory last weekend at a Middleboro town meeting, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe’s leaders know their plan for a big casino resort still faces a few hurdles.
They still need federal approval to put their Middleboro land into trust for a reservation and state approval to run slot machines there.
What they legally don’t need is a green light from the neighboring towns. But if the tribe -- which has done very little to reach out to those communities -- ignores the growing unrest about the casino plan in the other towns, it does so at its own peril.
Here’s why: The tribe needs to deal with the Legislature if it wants slots, and lawmakers probably will turn to their colleagues who represent the town of Middleboro for guidance. All three of the state reps for Middleboro also have other towns in their districts and are already hearing complaints about the potential influx of traffic on their roads and other concerns.
I spoke with two of the three reps (I couldn’t reach Rep. Bill Straus of Mattapoisett) as well as Middleboro’s senator, Marc Pacheco of Taunton. All three interpret the town meeting vote to enter into an agreement with the tribe -- and accept a multimillion dollar bonanza that the town would get from the tribe -- as a sign that the town supports the casino. They say they won’t be guided by a separate, nonbinding vote that was also held that day, showing a majority was opposed to casino gambling in Middleboro.
But all three say they will be guided by the concerns raised by their constituents in nearby towns.
Pacheco says any compact negotiated between Gov. Deval Patrick and the tribe should include some form of mitigation for nearby towns, particularly those that are adjacent to Middleboro. “I would have a hard time supporting a compact without payments for contiguous communities,” says Pacheco, who has been a supporter of allowing slot machines in the state.
Rep. Tom Calter of Kingston says he spoke to House Speaker Sal DiMasi a few days ago about the Middleboro proposal, and DiMasi hasn’t budged from his well-known anti-casino stance.
Calter, whose district includes the casino property, says constituents in his towns will need to be shown that they’re getting a fair shake with the casino. “If the answer is no, then I will vote down,” Calter says.
Rep. Stephen Canessa of New Bedford considers himself a supporter of expanding gaming in the state. But he, too, wants to make sure the nearby towns are compensated.
Tribe spokesman Scott Ferson says the tribe is willing to mitigate traffic impacts caused by the casino in other towns, but he doesn’t expect the tribe will do much more for them: “The Mashpee are not a ‘transportation ATM machine’ for Southeastern Massachusetts.” He also scoffed at a proposal that’s been floated to give neighboring towns a small cut of slot machine revenue. The tribe is willing to support a compact that sends a portion of slots cash to Middleboro; Ferson says Middleboro, as the reservation’s host town, would have a range of casino-related issues that other towns wouldn’t face.
The tribe could try to bypass the Legislature by focusing on bingo-style slot machines, like those used by the Florida Seminoles. But that wouldn’t be the tribe’s first choice, given the competition from the two casino resorts in Connecticut and slot machines in Rhode Island.
Middleboro has already secured its winnings with the tribe, with potentially more to come. You can bet that Middleboro’s state lawmakers will work to ensure their other towns also don’t end up empty-handed.
Jon Chesto is the business editor of The Patriot Ledger. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.