The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) will move ahead with plans to build a casino on the Island after a referendum to quash the plan failed by two votes, the new tribal chairman said this week.
Tobias Vanderhoop said a general membership meeting on Feb. 16 confirmed a previous vote taken in May 2012, when tribal members backed a plan to convert their 6,000-square-foot community center in Aquinnah into a Class II gaming facility.
A two-thirds majority was required to overturn the vote and failed narrowly. The meeting was held the day after a snowstorm.
“The outcome of the referendum did not change the previous two actions that had endorsed the proposal of a casino project here,” Mr. Vanderhoop told the Gazette. “At this point . . . the project will move forward.”
The tribe still faces an uphill battle in bringing gaming to the Island. In December, Gov. Deval Patrick filed a lawsuit with the state Supreme Judicial Court to block the casino, claiming the tribe is violating a 1983 land claims settlement agreement by taking steps to allow gaming. In January, at the request of the tribe the case moved to federal court, where it is now before U.S. District Judge F. Dennis Saylor. The state has petitioned to have the case remanded back to the state court.
The tribe also must overcome federal housing hurdles to convert the community center on Black Brook Road to a bingo hall. The center was built with a $600,000 grant from the Indian Community Development Block Grant program under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for HUD, told the Gazette this week that using the block grant money for a gaming facility would not have been allowed.
He said HUD approved a change of use request from the tribe in June 2012, provided they reimburse HUD $1.1 million, the current fair market value of the building. A public comment period is also required for a change of use, Mr. Sullivan said.
He said HUD has had no contact with the tribe since 2012.
Aquinnah selectman and tribal member Spencer Booker said this week the tribe would also have to go before the town zoning board of appeals for a change of use.
“From the town point of view, we’re still waiting to hear from the tribe relative to what transpired at the general membership meeting,” he said.
The tribe announced in April 2012 plans to turn the community center into a high-stakes bingo hall with electronic games, while also pursuing a multimillion dollar commercial casino off-Island. The move was led chiefly by then chairman of the tribe, Cheryl Andrews-Maltais. Mrs. Andrews-Maltais was unseated by Mr. Vanderhoop in November. She is still chairman of the Aquinnah Gaming Corporation, which continues to oversee the casino developments. The corporation is a separate entity which includes members of tribal council.
In an email to the Gazette, Mrs. Andrews-Maltais had few details on the project, which previously included bringing 300 slot machines to the facility. She said the casino will “generate some badly needed revenue” and create jobs that will benefit “tribal members and the local community.”
“Our project is being carefully developed as not to overbuild what we anticipate the market will yield or over burden our members with a heavy debt,” she wrote. “It will be conducive with the character of the Island. We will be sharing more information publicly when the time is appropriate.”
After he was elected tribal chairman, Mr. Vanderhoop called a special membership meeting in early February to specifically address the topic of gaming and give tribal members information on the proposal, he said. No vote was taken at that time. Following the meeting, Mr. Vanderhoop said a number of tribal members gathered enough signatures for a referendum on the casino issue. Mr. Vanderhoop said the issue was tested in a written ballot on Feb. 16. He described the atmosphere of that meeting as “charged” but “not contentious.”
Mr. Booker, speaking as a tribal member, said he thought the vote should have been postponed due to the weather.
“As with all democracies, what the people want in theory is not necessarily what the leadership wants,” he said.
Selectman and board chairman Beverly Wright, who is also a tribal member, echoed Mr. Booker’s sentiments.
“I’m sorry that the referendum did not pass,” she said. Mrs. Wright was not present at the meeting. “I don’t think the fight is over, that’s for sure. We’ll have to see what the governor is going to do and go from there.”
Mr. Vanderhoop said the tribe will be reaching out to town governments and business owners to keep communication channels open.
“We want to try to make sure that we have discussion where appropriate and provide support where appropriate to the town of Aquinnah and other towns as well,” he said. “It is our intention to reach out and have those conversations with our sister governments on the Island to make sure that questions and concerns are heard and discussions about any mitigation that may be necessary are had so that we continue to be that good neighbors. That’s the right thing to do.
“The project will move forward, the court action will take its course,” he added. “As I’ve said before, we will defend ourselves vigorously because we obviously believe we have these rights.”
The community center remains an unfinished building. Aquinnah building inspector Leonard Jason, Jr. said he has not done a final inspection needed for a certificate of occupancy. He said there has been no request for a final inspection.
“If they want to use it they have to get the finals done,” Mr. Jason said, including wiring, plumbing and fire department approvals for use as a community center.