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Mashpee Wampanoags' casino plan approved

MIDDLEBOROUGH, Mass. - Months of controversy and contentious debate ended with residents voting 2,387 to 1,335 July 28 to allow the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe to build the state's first casino in this town.

''It's an exciting day for everyone. Now it's time to sit down and negotiate with the governor,'' said an elated Glenn Marshall, tribal chairman, following the vote, according to a report in the Boston Globe.

The tribe's federal acknowledgement became official May 24, three months after the BIA issued its positive final determination, and no one challenged it. The tribe had been actively preparing to pursue gaming and once the final BIA decision was in place, plans to develop a $1 billion casino resort destination modeled after the hugely successful Foxwoods Resort and Casino and Mohegan Sun facilities in Connecticut shifted into high gear.

Three months of intense negotiations between the tribe and Middleborough's five-member Board of Selectmen led to a unanimous board approval of a 21-page agreement that was signed minutes after the four-hour town meeting that resulted in the 2 - 1 vote.

The agreement provides the town with $7 million a year in cash payments, plus revenues from 4 percent of the tribe's proposed 1,500-room hotel. The tribe will make a one-time $2 million payment to police and emergency services, and will pay for road improvements and other infrastructure enhancements, such as on and off ramps to the casino that will prevent traffic flow through the town center.

Revenues from the 4 percent of the hotel assessment is expected to be $4 million the first year, and will increase by 3 percent plus every year, the tribe's spokesman Scott Ferson said.

Around 4,000 of a potential 13,000 voter pool attended the town meeting, which was said to be the biggest ever in Massachusetts.

''It went very well. A quorum here is 150 people, so the 4,000 turnout was really big,'' said Diane Henault, the Board of Selectmen's secretary.

With the expectation of a huge crowd, the town meeting was set up with tents on a playing field at the local high school.

''I did have several calls from people asking if there were going to be vendors,'' Henault said with amusement.

Over the past several months, the tribe announced that its casino plans are backed by Mohegan Sun developers Sol Kerzner, a South African-born international gaming magnate, and Len Wolman - the partners who also own the Rhode Island Lincoln Park slot facility.

''The tribe also acquired land in Middleborough. It bought 125 acres and an option on an additional 200 acres that it will exercise, and hopes to announce in the next week or two the addition of another 200 acres, for a total 525 acres,'' Ferson said.

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The tribe will petition the Interior Department to take the entire parcel into trust by the end of August.

A Class III gaming compact will also be sought with the state. With the exception of Rhode Island, which has managed to wrest for itself a monopoly on gaming rights, the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act allows a tribe to engage in whatever level of gaming exists in a state. Massachusetts has horse racing and a lottery, but currently does not allow slots - the most lucrative gaming enterprise. The act also requires a state to negotiate a compact ''in good faith'' with the tribe.

The tribe will enter discussions with Gov. Deval Patrick on a Class III gaming compact, Ferson said.

''I don't believe the governor could sign a compact with the tribe that would include a right that is not allowed in Massachusetts, so I believe the Legislature and governor will have to take some action on Class III gaming,'' Ferson said.

The governor said he will declare his position on Class III gaming by Labor Day. If Patrick proposes legislation to approve Class III gaming, a compact deal will be negotiated.

The picture changes, however, if the state decides to offer commercial licenses, Ferson said. Then the tribe would have the option of participating in the commercial bid, or ''going on its own. In Connecticut, obviously, the value is in the exclusionary rights, so I think the tribe is going to approach it in the same way. What will be paid to the commonwealth will depend on the degree of exclusivity to the tribe,'' Ferson said.

With exclusive slots rights, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino provide Connecticut with 25 percent of the gross revenues from their slot machines, around $435 million in 2006.

The town will write letters to the state and Interior supporting the tribe's trust application and a Class III gaming compact, Selectman Adam Bond said.

Although the town meeting went smoothly, ''there was also a little bit of acrimony,'' Bond said.

Two groups organized to support and oppose the casino - www.casino-friend.com and www.casinofacts.org, respectively.

In what has become customary all over the country when a tribal nation seeks federal acknowledgement or a casino compact, the local group found support from a national anti-Indian group, in this case Citizens Equal Rights Alliance, which opposes Indian sovereignty under the guise of ''equal rights'' and ''democracy.''

Bond said he understands the racism that underlies such opposition.

''This deal has nothing to do with race, while at the same time it has everything to do with it. The Wampanoags have an ideological, historical and cultural reason to be here on this land we're sitting on. It's their aboriginal land and their history. The antis are in the 'It's my town' category and they don't realize or don't care that [they 've] displaced these people. I truly believe in my heart this is the right direction to go and the right people to go with,'' Bond said.