The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) has quietly developed a partnership with a successful Native American casino developer/operator, perhaps based in the northeastern United States, and is ready to re-enter the Massachusetts casino derby with a different approach.
The tribe has been engaged in gaming-related proposals for 15 years without opening a casino, but has remained in the background during the recent surge of interest in gaming in Massachusetts.
But the Island tribe now has lined up an experienced financial and operational backer and will announce both its partner and details of the plan, possibly within a week, according to Don Widdiss, chairman of the tribal council.
News of the tribe’s initiative follows a recent public proposal to license three casinos in the Bay State by Gov. Deval Patrick.
While reports say the tribe’s partner is based in the Northeast, Mr. Widdiss this week would not reveal the identity or the location of the tribe’s partner.
“We will follow the timetable [with its partner] but I’ll say they know what they are doing,” Mr. Widdiss said. “They’ve done it very successfully over time.”
The latest move results from an extended period of quiet tribal planning and conversation with potential financial and operational partners, sources say.
A tribal member said: “The casino subject is the hottest topic around here right now.”
Mr. Widdiss said: “We have signed a long-term agreement with our partners for financing, partnership and development planning and for operation of a casino complex. Our partners are not only acceptable to the tribe but will be acceptable to the Massachusetts legislature as well. They are extremely well-respected [casino] operators.”
Conversations with Mr. Widdiss and other tribe members reveals a significant change in strategy from a rights-based lobbying effort to a sophisticated business model.
The tribe has had a history of false starts in the casino business. In 1995, the tribe partnered with Richard Friedman, a successful commercial real estate developer and Island homeowner. A year later Carnival Hotels and Casinos had succeeded the Friedman interests.
At one point in the Carnival era, the Felds, of Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey circus fame, were hired to develop a theme park which was abandoned when climate and accessibility issues surfaced.
There have been close calls. The tribe and then-Gov. William Weld signed a deal for the Aquinnah tribe to develop a $200 million casino in New Bedford, an agreement which died in the legislature.
“We believe the real consideration is not just who is the highest bidder but also who can work best with the political process, the legislature,” he said. “And we’ve been on top of that. Really, the situation now becomes a test of wills between the governor and both legislative branches in the State House.”
The Aquinnah tribal initiative must also overcome perceived limitations on its gaming rights under its 1987 tribal recognition agreement with the state.
State director of housing and economic development Daniel O’Connell this week said the Aquinnah tribe gaming status is “materially different” from the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe’s situation.
A spokeswoman for Mr. O’Connell said yesterday that “it is our position that the Wampanoag tribe of Aquinnah waived its rights to gaming in exchange for endorsement by the commonwealth for its federal tribal recognition. That recognition  occurred prior to enactment of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act ,” which granted Native Americans the right to operate gaming businesses, she said.
The effect of that position is that the tribe would be unable to put land in trust for a casino but would not limit the tribe’s ability to bid on a commercial license as non-native casino developer bid, she said.
But the only constraint Mr. Widdiss sees is the issue of land availability.
“Our attorneys are confident that this anachronistic position is incorrect on a number of points,” he said. “They [the commonwealth] need to look at the canon of federal law. There is superseding federal law. We went through this argument with the state in the 1990s. The same argument. The state was satisfied at that time that we did hold those rights. They need to rethink their position.”
The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe is undertaking the process of taking land into trust in Middleboro, a site favored by the governor.
The Aquinnah plan would also take land into trust, though the Vineyard tribe will not pursue the Middleboro site tied up by the Mashpee plan.
“Using Aquinnah tribal lands is not practical. We need to find a site off-Island,” Mr. Widdiss said.
“But we are open to sites in any of the three areas [western Massachusetts, southeastern Massachusetts and north of Boston] proposed by the governor.” Mr. Widdiss said.
Any political handicapping about the outcome is premature, according to state Rep. Eric T. Turkington of Falmouth, who is taking the long view despite casino headlines appearing daily in Massachusetts media.
“We‘ve seen this movie before and nothing has happened,” Mr. Turkington said. “Right now, there is no proposed legislation and the House has historically shown no inclination to approve casino gambling.”
But he said that if casino gambling were legalized, “The Mashpee and Aquinnah tribes have an edge. If the state does not license one of them, we’ll end up with five casinos rather than three and the tribes will get them for a nickel, figuratively, maybe literally.”
He added: “The state has an interest in dealing with the tribes if a selection process occurs.”
Virtually every source agreed that tribal options of seeking either a state license or proceeding through a federal process based on sovereignty is essentially a moot point financially.
Under a federally-approved plan, the tribe would not be liable for state taxes and some costs. But the tribe also would be required to make a compact with the state under law, essentially a negotiating process involving payments to the state in lieu of taxes.
Experience has shown that the sovereign process takes 18 months to five years to complete, while state approval takes far less time.
Political reality was a core concept in the new planning process, according to Mr. Widdiss.
“We learned our lesson and we are dedicated to the business plan and to the political strategy that affords us the best chance of success,” he said.
Mr. Widdiss confirmed that he was at Beacon Hill on Tuesday. He said that he did not meet with Governor Patrick, adding “the governor has not contacted us in any manner.”
Mr. Turkington confirmed that Mr. Widdiss “came by [his State House office] on Tuesday and explained his position.”
The representative said he was not asked to file any legislation by the tribe nor does he plan to file legislation at this point.