Mashpee Unveils $500 Million Resort Casino Plan: 'Project First Light'

TAUNTON, Massachusetts—The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe rolled out detailed plans for a $500 million destination resort casino in one of the oldest cities in the country, located in part of the Wampanoag’s vast aboriginal territory that tribal ancestors called Cohannet.

Taunton, Massachusetts where the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe hopes to develop a world-class resort, was founded in 1637 by members of the Plymouth Colony, some of whom were likely the ancestors of today’s city residents.

“We feel like we're home and the relationship is being rekindled with the City of Taunton, and we're excited about that,” Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Chairman Cedric Cromwell told a crowd of nearly 100 people including more than a dozen media outlets packed into a room in a former elementary school that houses the municipal offices. The Mashpee leader was joined by Taunton Mayor Tom Hoye to announce the ambitious proposal, called Project First Light in honor of the eastern coast Algonquin peoples known as the People of the Dawn or People of the First Light.

While Taunton is known as the "Silver City" for its historic role at the center of the silver industry, the city, like so many other northeastern industrial mill towns, has been economically challenged for some time now. Both Cromwell and Hoye hailed Project First Light as a way out of the city’s economic doldrums. "We want to put people back to work," Cromwell said. The proposed destination resort casino has brought much excitement to the city, Hoye said. “A destination resort could provide up to 2,000 much needed jobs to our region and provide opportunity so that Taunton may once again control its own destiny and begin the road back to self sustainability.”

Michael Speller of Arkana Limited showed details of the proposal in a Power Point presentation. Arkana Limited is wholly owned by a Lim family trust that invests in developing American Indian casinos, among other things. K.T. Lim is the chairman and CEO of Genting Berhad, the investment holding and management company of the Genting Group, the powerful Malaysian gaming developer that financed the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation’s Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Connecticut and is financing Project First Light. Speller, a former president of the Mashantucket Pequot Gaming Enterprise, is part of the Mashpee project management team. Project First Light is slated for development on a 145-acre parcel designated by the Taunton Development Corporation as economic development land. The parcel is located at an intersection of two main routes. The resort casino will be built out in four phases over a five-year period at a total cost of over $500 million, Speller said. The complete project will include:

  • a 150,000-square-foot, first-class Category 3 gaming casino, with at least two fine dining restaurants, an international buffet and a multi-venue food court;
  • 10-15 distinctive retail shops with recognized national upscale brandsl
  • three 300-room hotels, including one 3.5-to-4-star hotel, one mid-range hotel and one family-oriented hotel;
  • business meeting rooms and an event center;
  • a state of the art family-oriented indoor and outdoor water park.

Speller predicted the project would generate an estimated $120 million in economic benefits to the city on an annual basis once the casino and hotels are built out. He said the project will result in a world class facility. “I can assure you that we will work very hard to deliver a project that this city will be very, very proud to have in its midst.”

Cromwell said the project would create about 1,000 unionized temporary construction jobs and that, once finished, the casino would employ more than 2,500 people with an $80 million annual payroll. "The jobs and direct economic impact from this project will have a meaningful positive effect on thousands of local families," he said.

Massachusetts Gov. Duval Patrick signed a gaming bill last November that allows three resort casinos and one slot parlor to be developed in the state. The bill includes a carve-out for one Indian resort casino. Among the bill’s restrictions are a July 31, 2012, deadline for a tribal-state compact to be completed, or the state will seeks bids from other developers in southeastern Massachusetts; an agreement to purchase land for gaming; and a scheduled vote with the host community.

The tribe is in continuing negotiations with the state on a tribal-state compact that seems likely to meet the end-of-July deadline. According to Patrick, the negotiations are going well. “We’ve got some work to finish by the end of July in terms of negotiations with the tribe on the compact. But I think the lawyers are making good progress. There is very open communication,” Patrick said April 26 on Ask the Governor, a radio station show on WTKK-FM.

As for the land, the tribe holds options to buy the 145-acre property and has applications pending with the Interior Department to take the land into trust—a must in order to conduct Indian gaming there. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) generally prohibits the federal government from taking land into trust for gaming after IGRA’s passage in 1988, but provides for “equal footing” exceptions to allow tribes to build their nations. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar delineated the exceptions in a June 2010 memo to Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk. They include “[l]ands that are taken into trust for settlement of a land claim, as part of an initial reservation, or as restoration of lands for a tribe that is restored to federal recognition . . . in order to place certain tribes on equal footing.” Cromwell said the tribe’s land into trust application has been updated and that an Environmental Impact Statement—a requirement for trust land under the National Environmental Policy Act—is underway. “We know we don’t have to have the land into trust by August 1 [a day after the deadline for the tribal-state compact]. We’re moving down that path very well and we’re confident about the outcome,” Cromwell said.

Meanwhile, the tribe and city will hold a public informational meeting on Saturday, May 5, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Taunton High School. Taunton residents will vote at a nonbinding referendum on Project First Light on June 9.

“The next six weeks may be the most important in the history of our city,” Hoye said. “We only get one shot at a project of this magnitude.”