For the first time since the mid-nineties, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) is looking at favorable odds in its bid to build a high-end casino in southeastern Massachusetts.
The reason is simple. After years of giving the cold shoulder to anyone lobbying for approval of the state's first casino, leaders in Boston are now staring down a $2 billion deficit in the state budget while at the same time watching neighboring states move to expand gambling.
By month's end, a bipartisan panel on gambling that just held four public hearings across the commonwealth is expected to issue a positive report, finding that the financial benefits from casino gambling outweigh the social costs and potential negative effects on the lucrative state lottery, the Boston Herald reported Wednesday.
Wampanoag tribal chairman Beverly Wright greeted the news yesterday, calling it a positive development, while holding off further comments until the full report is released by the panel of legislators and labor and business leaders.
But Ms. Wright and the tribe's lobbyists have been anything but quiet in the last year and a half since they renewed their push for a casino. The tribe has spent nearly $120,000 on lobbying alone, according to reports from the last two years filed with the secretary of state.
At the first hearing held earlier this month in Fall River, Ms. Wright argued for exclusive rights to a casino and told panelists that a tribal casino could reclaim 80 per cent of the $1 billion in Massachusetts gambling money now flowing to casinos in Connecticut and slot machines in Rhode Island, according to a report in the the New Bedford Standard Times.
That claim was based on a study commissioned by the tribe and produced by the accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche. At the same hearing, Ms. Wright also vowed that if the state approves slot machines at the dog racetracks, the Wampanoags will open a casino within 16 months.
The tribe wants to build a $480 million casino on 100 acres of land somewhere in southeastern Massachusetts. The casino, backers say, would employ as many as 9,000 people.
The last time the Wampanoag tribe attempted to win approval for a casino, they enjoyed the support of then-governor William Weld and committed $6.5 million to the effort. But in 1997, the political landscape turned less friendly, and the legislature shot down their request by a wide margin.
This time around, the Wampanoags could face a much easier process if the state legislature moves ahead on a proposed bill, paving the way for slot machines and as many as three casinos in the state. The bill would require casino operators to pay upfront licensing fees to the state that could total as much as $450 million, according to an article in the Boston Globe.
Under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the Wampanoags - the state's only federally recognized tribe - would automatically win permission to open a casino if such a law were passed.
"They have this ace in the hole here," said Cape and Islands Rep. Eric Turkington. "Any form of gambling the state permits, it has to permit for them."
The Wampanoags have teamed up with the Tunica Biloxi Indians in Louisiana, a tribe that has parlayed its successful casino into a consulting firm helping other tribes step into the gambling arena.
The Wampanoag tribe's project manager, real estate developer David Nunes, told the Gazette this week that the pairing of two tribes could help sell their project to legislators.
"No one can say it's non-Native American who will make money from this," Mr. Nunes said, pointing to a recent Time Magazine story reporting that many casinos are making money for white investors, but not Indians.
While several other casino operators and two other tribes are looking to open a casino in the state, the Wampanoags may have an advantage. "They have an edge over other people in the sense that they're ready to go," said the Rev. Richard MacGowan, a Jesuit priest and economics professor at Boston College's Carroll School of Management who is part of the 19-member panel.
"They have the financing and somebody buying them land," said Mr. MacGowan.
But despite the upbeat mood around the tribe and its chances at getting into the gambling business, there are numerous questions and criticisms that could be hurdles for the Wampanoags.
First off, the tribe needs to find suitable land, a hospitable town and seek federal approval for the land to be held in trust. Mr. Nunes would say only that the tribe is looking at 77 different towns that fall within the aboriginal territory of the tribe, stretching from Marshfield and south along the Massachusetts coast and into Rhode Island.
Even then, the tribe might still need approval from the governor to take land and use it as a casino. While the tribe has no intent of building a casino on the Island, a court case now pending in Dukes County Superior Court could have an impact on how the Wampanoags can proceed with their casino aspirations.
The town of Aquinnah is suing the tribe to enforce a simple zoning bylaw, requiring the tribe to obtain a building permit for a shed built on tribal lands at its shellfish hatchery. Tribal leaders claim they have sovereignty over lands held in trust and don't need to comply with town zoning laws.
Theoretically, if the tribe won its case in superior court this winter in Edgartown, it could clear a path for a Wampanoag casino someplace else in the state, even if the state didn't want it.
Meanwhile, other Island issues could also color the tribe's chances at winning a casino approval. Financial troubles at the tribe's Island-based businesses - Alley's General Store and Back Alley's, for example - have led some tribal members to question how they could run a casino if they can't manage to operate a general store in the black.
And the tribe won't find any support from their own legislators. Both Mr. Turkington and Cape and Islands Sen. Robert O'Leary vehemently oppose casinos. "It's legalized addiction," said Mr. Turkington.
And Mr. O'Leary put it this way: "I don't believe government should finance itself on the back of gambling. It's a fundamentally bad policy."