Taunton endorses Mashpee Wampanoag casino plan

TAUNTON — City voters endorsed a proposed Mashpee Wampanoag tribal casino in a non-binding referendum on Saturday, marking the first ballot-box victory in Massachusetts for the gambling industry since the state legalized Las Vegas-style casinos in 2011.

About 62 percent of city voters supported the tribe’s proposal to build a $500 million gambling resort at the junctions of Route 24 and 140.

The vote was 7,693 in favor to 4,571 opposed, according to unofficial numbers from the City Clerk’s office. About 37 percent of the city’s 33,000 registered voters participated in the unusual single-question referendum.

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The Taunton vote comes after Freetown and Lakeville voters rejected a casino proposed by the Wampanoag of Aquinnah. Foxborough voters rebuffed a gambling resort proposal in May by electing anti-casino candidates to the Board of Selectmen.

“We are overwhelmed by this resounding victory in Taunton, especially in comparison to the recent rejection of gaming in Foxboro and other neighboring communities,” said Cedric Cromwell, Mashpee Wampanoag chairman, in a statement. “But let’s be clear, this is not just a victory for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, this is a victory for the future of this city, for every person looking for a good job, and for the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

The win does not guarantee that a tribal casino will be built in Taunton, but the public support keeps the proposal on track.

The tribe is in ongoing negotiations with Governor Deval Patrick over how the casino would be regulated and how much money in state taxes, if any, it would pay. Even though the vote was not binding under the law, a defeat would have been seen as a serious setback that probably would have disrupted those negotiations.

“We’ll enjoy this victory tonight, but our work isn’t done,” Cromwell noted. “First thing Monday morning, we’ll be back at it, working to finalize a compact with Governor Patrick so we can create thousands of jobs and millions in revenue as soon as possible.”

Opponents noted after the vote that the Mashpee had committed $300,000 toward a public campaign to build support for its plans, far outspending the opposition.

“We went up against absolutely insurmountable odds,” said casino opponent Michelle Littlefield. “They had a well-oiled, well-funded political machine.”

Littlefield said the fight will go on, and that the opposition will turn its efforts against the tribe’s application to have the federal government take the land for the proposed casino into trust for the tribe. The Mashpee cannot build a casino until they have land in trust.

“This is a long way from over,” she said.

Voters on Saturday who said they supported the project cited the potential economic benefits.

Eighty-one-year old Norman Macomber cast his vote in favor of the casino, despite not having much luck as a gambler.

“I do go sometimes [to casino] and I always lose, but I still voted yes,” Macomber said. Despite his losses, he thinks the city would prosper from the large-scale development. “There is going to be a lot of opposition, but it should pass for the good of the city,” he said.

His wife, Gail, said the couple is interested in seeing shows and other forms of entertainment that the casino could bring.

Morris O’Keefy, 47, who works at a beer distributor, supported the casino because he believes the project would benefit his business, as well as the community. The downtown Taunton resident does not live near the proposed casino site, but would vote the same way even if he did, he said. “I would be more concerned about my property taxes and property values, but I would still support it because Taunton needs the money.”

Closer to the site, Tanya Muldoon, a 31-year-old East Taunton resident, voted no, saying the project would be too close to East Taunton Elementary, which her 5-year-old son will attend in the fall.

“I love Taunton, and I’m going to do what I can to stop this,” she said. “We do need the jobs, but there has to be something more productive in the area.”

Muldoon did more than just oppose the casino in the ballot box: she stood on Winthrop Street and waved a “vote no” sign to make her point. She wore one of the “Stop Taunton casino” buttons that she had been distributing for weeks.

Daniel Blunt, 34, with three young children in tow, said he voted no. “Initially, I thought yes. I thought it was going to be good,” Blunt said. “I was thinking yes for all the reasons they wanted it here in the first place because, business-wise, it does make sense.”

But Blunt said once he started researching the effects of casinos, he began to reconsider. He worries a casino may harm property values and increase crime. “The more I looked into it, in the long term it wasn’t good. I would love it to be a good thing for the community, but I don’t think we will benefit as much.”

Blunt said he felt it was important to submit his vote even though he believed the casino vote would pass. “I’ve got a feeling it’s going to go through whether we like it or not, but a lot of people that are voting for this are not informed,” said Blunt.

Even with the successful vote, the tribe faces a long road to approval. The Mashpee are pursuing a tribal casino, which are approved by the federal government in a process only open to federally recognized tribes. That process is outside of the jurisdiction of the state gambling commission, which controls the development of commercial casinos in Massachusetts.

The Mashpee face uncertainty about whether the federal government will take the proposed Taunton casino site into trust for the tribe. The process could take years and require an act of Congress.

Alejandra Matos contributed to this report. Mark Arsenault can be reached a marsenault@globe.com