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Two nations in bids for Fall River casinos

FALL RIVER, Mass. – Could Fall River, Mass., end up with two Indian casinos?

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, based in Cape Cod, announced May 17 that it had reached an agreement with the city of Fall River, Mass., to develop a resort-style destination casino.

The nation’s proposal includes a casino, three hotels, a shopping mall, convention facilities, showroom and spa on approximately 300 acres of land along Route 24.

“The development of a resort-style casino in Fall River presents a unique opportunity not only for the tribe, but also for the City of Fall River,” said Cedric Cromwell, Mashpee Wampanoag chairman. “This proposal will bring economic opportunity for the tribe, and its people, while also directly and indirectly creating thousands of jobs in Fall River during construction and subsequent operation.”

Fall River Mayor Will Flanagan lauded the arrangement.

“We are pleased that we have reached an agreement with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe to develop this project in our city. Beyond the thousands of jobs this project will create, it will bring much needed revenue to the City of Fall River to pay for services like public safety, infrastructure improvements and education. Simply put, it is a great project for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, a great project for Fall River, and a great project for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

Fall River, population around 90,000, is a former textile manufacturing town around 46 miles south of Boston. The city has the highest unemployment rate in the state – 15.8 in April, according to the Office of Labor and Workforce Development.

Casino supporters agree that Mashpee’s proposed project will create thousands of new jobs, but opponents, including four out of nine city councilors, say the city should stick with its original plan to build a biotech park for the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, on the land.

“Not so fast,” the Martha’s Vineyard-based Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe said in a statement two days after the Mashpee announcement.

“Recently, Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe announced plans to develop a massive gaming complex in Fall River, Massachusetts on a site slated for a biotech park. Aquinnah Wampanoag states to Fall River: You can have both.”

The Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe has trust lands on Martha’s Vineyard and since 2007 has had an additional 250 acres of “tribally-controlled land” in Fall River in the nation’s aboriginal territory, the statement said, but it did not indicate the location of the land.

Aquinnah received federal recognition in 1987 and was the only federally recognized nation in the state until the Mashpee Wampanoags were recognized in 2007. Mashpee has fee lands on Cape Cod, but no trust lands.

The Aquinnah Wampanoag Gaming Corporation had sited and coordinated plans for the development of a Class III resort casino and other initiatives on the tribally-controlled lands in Fall River since 2007, the statement said, and the tribe’s plans don’t force the city to choose between a biotech park and a casino.

The Aquinnah proposal will also provide new jobs and include development plan revenues for a biotech “presence” in Fall River, the statement said.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe has the financial backing of Arkana Ltd., a wholly-owned affiliate of the Malaysia-based Kien Huat Realty. Kien Huat affiliates are collectively known as the Genting Group, which is one of the world’s largest casino operators.

The Aquinnah statement did not provide details of the tribe’s casino development proposal, its location, or information regarding financing. But in the fall of 2007, Aquinnah announced it had entered an inter-tribal partnership with the Seneca Nation in New York to build a $1 billion casino resort in Massachusetts.

Neither Aquinnah Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais nor Cromwell was available for comment.

Fall River, meanwhile, has proposed a 150-plus acre site near the proposed Mashpee casino site for a UMass biotech facility, according to Cape Cod Online. So, theoretically, Fall River could have a biotech facility and two Indian casinos.

Both Wampanoag nations share certain obstacles before they can move forward with any casino development plan.

First, the state legislature has to pass a pending bill to permit casino gaming in the state.

Massachusetts currently has horse racing, a lottery and “casino nights” type gaming. Under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, a federally acknowledged tribe is allowed to develop gaming to the same degree that it exists in a state. A similar type of “Las Vegas nights” gaming in nearby Connecticut was the vehicle that allowed the Mashantucket Pequots to open their casino in 1993.

Next, the Interior Department has to take the proposed casino site properties into trust. That action is stymied by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2009 Carcieri decision that prohibits the Interior Department from taking land into trust for tribes recognized after 1934. And even if the Carcieri ruling is “fixed,” the nations would have to prove their aboriginal ties to Fall River in order to qualify for “off-reservation” gaming.

Mashpee has additional obstacles to overcome. The nation has an agreement with Middleboro to build a casino on 536 acres under its prior partnership with South African financiers Sol Kerzner and Len Wolman, with whom the nation severed ties last year. Middleboro intends to invoke a dispute resolution clause in its contract that requires the tribe to sit down and work out terms of the severance or face a lawsuit, according to Cape Cod Online.

Additionally, Massachusetts wants $34 million for an exit ramp to Mashpee’s proposed casino site, and the state legislature would have to lift a restriction banning casinos or landfills on the land.

So, even if the barriers were removed tomorrow, one or two Indian casinos would not be up and running for several years.