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Casino talk hits a chord in Taunton

By Brian MacQuarrie and Martine Powers
Globe Staff / March 1, 2012
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TAUNTON - Mayor Tom Hoye called a casino resort a one-time chance for this struggling city. Mashpee Wampanoag chairman Cedric Cromwell lavished praise on Taunton’s movers and shakers. And many residents here, accustomed to decline, predicted that a gambling emporium would revive a city that lost its luster long ago.

That buzz of good feeling enveloped the interim City Hall yesterday, as Hoye and Cromwell announced the beginning of a complex process to build a destination casino costing at least $500 million near the heavily traveled intersection of Routes 24 and 140.

“This proposal has the potential to create thousands of employment opportunities for our residents,’’ Hoye said to applause and Native American whoops. “This could potentially be the shot in the arm that our city needs to once again be the gem of Southeastern Massachusetts.’’

The officials stressed that their announcement was merely a beginning and that many hurdles must be cleared before a casino could be built by the Mashpee Wampanoag on a 77-acre, privately owned site in the Liberty and Union Industrial Park.

But yesterday, none of the legal minutiae and mazelike complications seemed to matter to many residents. They spoke of jobs, first-class entertainment, even access to gambling as benefits for a city that has hemorrhaged the mill and precious-metal jobs that once inspired its nickname of Silver City.

“Walk down the streets here and see everybody that’s out of work’’ said Jim Gillon, 59, as he sat at the counter at Joe’s Diner. “It’ll bring jobs to the city. A casino’s got to go somewhere, right? I’ve seen all the silver places and factories go out of business. It’s time to bring some jobs back.’’

Joe Resendes, a 57-year-old landscaper, gave his thumbs-up during a stop at City Hall.

“Taunton needs a kick,’’ Resendes said. “Taunton may be on its last breath. Let it have some air. I’m all for it.’’

The Mashpee Wampanoag hailed the potential for doing business here.

“I have goosebumps, and that’s a good feeling,’’ Cromwell said. “It’s good medicine.’’

“I’m excited about the opportunity for prosperity for our people,’’ said tribal secretary Marie Stone.

The good feelings, however, were laced with a sprinkling of caution. State Senator Marc R. Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat, said the tribe’s now abandoned proposal for Middleborough, which he also represents, is a lingering memory.

“I’ve been down this road before,’’ Pacheco said of the tribe’s decision to back away after Middleborough voters approved a proposal in 2007. However, he added, “I’m cautiously optimistic. You have to wait and see what the details are.’’

Brian Moles, 36, president of Moles Environmental Services, said a casino should be located in a rural area, as are the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods resorts in Connecticut.

“It’s too close to home,’’ Moles said. “I enjoy gambling, but having to travel to gambling deters me from doing it. No matter what, it’s going to cost you something.’’

To reach the point where gamblers actually start winning and losing money in a Taunton casino, several mileposts must be reached.

The city must be confident its needs for revenue and increased public safety are met, the mayor said. The state and the tribe must reach agreement on the Commonwealth’s compensation and oversight. And city residents must be allowed to vote on the proposal in a binding referendum.

The tribe faces a five-month deadline for part of the process, after which commercial bidders could be invited to build in Southeastern Massachusetts, one of three areas in the state approved for a casino. By July 31, a compact between the tribe and the state must be approved by the Legislature and the referendum must be scheduled.

The Mashpee Wampanoag, whose casino hopes have failed in Middleborough and Fall River, were granted exclusive preference to form a plan before commercial interests can compete.

David Gulley, a Bentley University economics professor, said Taunton is well situated to siphon people from the Connecticut resorts. But he questions whether Taunton is too close to other proposed sites.

Raynham Park, which hosts simulcast betting, lies just northeast of the city. And Foxborough, where Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn has proposed a $1 billion gambling resort, is less than 20 miles away.

George Carney, the Raynham Park owner expected to bid for slot machines, said he is not concerned about the prospect of a neighboring casino. Under the new law, one slot-machine parlor will be allowed in the state.

“I don’t mind competition, because if I have competition from the city of Taunton or wherever it may be, that means I’ll have to run a better campaign,’’ he said. “Competition never hurt George Carney.’’

Carney said a slot-machine parlor at Raynham Park would appeal to a different clientele than a casino: fewer heavy gamblers and big-time spenders, with more senior citizens interested in a relaxed atmosphere.

The tribe, Carney said, contacted him about establishing a casino at Raynham Park about six months ago. Negotiations fell apart, he said, because the tribe did not want to hire current racetrack employees.

Stephen P. Crosby, chairman of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, said building two casinos near each other is not an automatic disqualifier. The commission, he said, will not make decisions based simply on distance, but will investigate its effect on the local economy.

“The question would be whether having two casinos in close proximity is a positive or a negative or a neutral,’’ Crosby said.

Richard McGowan, professor of economics at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, said Taunton benefits from several factors: proximity to two major highways, available land, and enthusiastic support from some local leaders.

“One would hope that there’s a learning curve, that they have a better idea of what they’re doing now,’’ McGowan said of the Wampanoag. “But that’s a lot to get done in less than half a year.’’

MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com; Powers at mpowers@globe.com.

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