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Casino pitched for Fall River

Wampanoags seek 300-acre complex; But legal hurdles may stand in way

By Casey Ross and Christine Legere
Globe Staff | Globe Correspondent / May 18, 2010

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Reviving its quest to open a casino, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe unveiled plans yesterday to build a massive gambling complex in downtown Fall River, abandoning plans to open a destination resort in the fields of Middleborough.

The tribe outlined a proposal for a 300-acre casino complex with three hotels, a shopping mall, a cinema, and an entertainment facility on property off Route 24 that was originally planned for development as a biotechnology park.

The Wampanoags said they chose the Fall River site because it would draw more casino patrons and was a better business deal.

“We looked at every agreement for the tribe and every contract, and this site will deliver the best economic impact,’’ said Wampanoag chairman Cedric Cromwell.

The proposal — backed by Mayor Will Flanagan of Fall River, who says it will create much-needed jobs — was the focus of intense debate at a public meeting held in the city last night. Several state legislators said Fall River should take more time considering whether to shelve the biotechnology park in favor of the casino plan. The city’s Redevelopment Authority ended public comment and suspended the meeting without a vote. The tribe said it wants to begin construction upon passage of gaming legislation now working its way through the State House.

The Massachusetts House of Representatives earlier this year approved legislation that would grant licenses for two casinos in Massachusetts and allow slots at its four racetracks. The lead sponsor of the bill, Representative Brian Dempsey, said the tribe would have to apply for one of those licenses and would be treated as any other applicant.

Other developers are proposing to build casinos in Milford and Palmer and at the Suffolk Downs track in East Boston. The Massachusetts Senate is writing its own gaming legislation.

The tribe faces several potential obstacles. Lawmakers opposed to the plan pointed out last night that the state — which owned the proposed site when it was part of a industrial district — had put in place restrictions preventing the city from redeveloping it as a casino. They said that means the Legislature would have to overturn that restriction.

The Wampanoags could seek to sidestep the state by moving to have the property declared sovereign tribal land. But that would have to be done by the US Congress or President Obama, following a 2009 US Supreme Court decision that barred the Wampanoags and certain other tribes from taking control of land to expand casinos or build new ones.

Tribal representatives said yesterday they are confident the federal law will be updated to allow the Fall River site declared sovereign land. If that happens, the Wampanoag tribe could develop the Fall River site into a casino without the state’s approval. The state would have no say over licensing, zoning, traffic, or environmental impact.

In announcing their proposal, the Wampanoags said they intend to negotiate a compact to share revenue with the state and agree to compensate Fall River for effects related to traffic and other issues. At the same time, however, they also made clear they believe they can proceed without the state if necessary.

“We could get in the ground quicker than anybody,’’ Cromwell said.

Massachusetts Senate leaders said they will account for a possible Wampanoag casino when they determine how many gambling facilities the state could support.

“It could destabilize the [casino] industry in Massachusetts if we proceeded without considering the future of the Wampanoags,’’ said Senator Stanley Rosenberg, chairman of the Senate committee devising the gaming bill. “We’re looking at this question extremely seriously, so that if we do move forward we do so in an environment in which we can succeed.’’ His committee is expected to file legislation next month.

One of the things that made the Fall River site a more attractive casino site is a new $70 million off-ramp from Route 24 being built with taxpayer funds awarded under the federal stimulus program. When they announced funding for the ramp last year, Patrick administration officials emphasized that it would make the site more attractive to future biotech developers.

Flanagan yesterday said he still intends to recruit biotechnology companies to the city, but that the casino plan is the best way to develop the 300-acre site and dig Fall River out of a recession that has hit harder there than almost anywhere else in Massachusetts. The city, a former center of textile manufacturing, now has the second-highest unemployment rate in the state, at about 17.6 percent as of March, nearly double the state’s average.

“People are struggling here. They are losing their homes and getting their cars repossessed,’’ Flanagan said. “This will bring revenue to the city and will allow people to start getting paychecks again and paying their bills.’’

But some who attended last night’s meeting urged city officials to stick with plans for the biotechnology park, saying that it is more likely to be successful. “One project can start right away, but the other comes with a long list of ifs,’’ said Robert Mellion, an executive with the Fall River Chamber of Commerce.

The Wampanoags estimated the Fall River complex would cost $500 million to build, compared to more than $1 billion for the one they floated in Middleborough. The tribe has the financial backing of Arkana Ltd., a Malaysian investment group that financed the start of Foxwoods Resort and Casino in Connecticut in 1992 and the Seneca Niagara Casino in New York in 2002.

Casino opponents said it doesn’t matter where the casino is, the outcome for residents will be the same. “The tribes are used as a front to get a foothold by wealthy billionaire foreign investors so they can extract monies out of local economies, at the sacrifice of families, and costly impacts to municipalities,’’ said Kathleen Conley Norbut, president of United to Stop Slots, part of a coalition lobbying against gambling expansion.

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.