G Urban Enterprises was the only company to file an application and $400,000 check by Monday’s deadline in a high-stakes gamble to beat the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe into the casino game.
There was no last-minute flurry of activity at Massachusetts Gaming Commission headquarters like there was in January when 11 companies, including two last-minute surprises, filed for two casino licenses and a slot parlor.
Experts have said that’s because the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe looms with its $500 million Indian casino proposed in Taunton. If the tribe wins federal approvals to have land taken into trust, a commercial casino taxed at 25 percent gross gambling revenues would be hard-pressed to compete against a tribal casino.
The tribe looked at Monday’s lack of applicants as a victory.
“This is further confirmation from the gaming industry that the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is in the strongest position — with a winning hand — to develop a destination resort casino in Southeastern Massachusetts,” tribal council Chairman Cedric Cromwell said.
KG Urban, which filed as KG New Bedford LLC and hopes to build a casino on the New Bedford waterfront, may not be the tribe’s only competition.
The gaming commission will allow companies that miss out on licenses in other regions of the state to turn their attention toward Southeastern Massachusetts. The competitive environment won’t be fully known until after December when the commission awards a slot license and in April when two full-fledged casinos are licensed, Stephen Crosby, chairman of the gaming commission, said Monday.
“I’d love to have more (Region C) competition, but it is what it is,” Crosby said. “There are other people still sniffing around.”
Ray Howell, a spokesman for Claremont Companies, which owns 170 acres in Bridgewater near routes 495 and 24, said Monday the company didn’t file an application but continues to explore making a deal with a casino operator.
“The Claremont Companies are engaged in discussions with several major operators of entertainment resorts, and we anticipate making an announcement in the near future,” Elias Patoucheas, president of Claremont Companies, said in a statement released Monday.
Hard Rock, which missed out on the West Springfield license when a referendum vote failed, and Mass Gaming & Entertainment, a subsidiary of Rush Street Gaming, which sought a slot parlor license in Millbury, are a couple of possibilities. There will be other losers in the other two regions of the state as well as in the slot parlor sweepstakes.
Crosby said there’s nothing precluding companies who are seeking licenses in other regions from talking to land owners in Region C as a “backup plan.”
Ultimately, a decision whether to award a license in Region C would be made toward the end of 2014 and will take into account the economic viability of the project, which includes where the tribe’s project is in the process, Crosby said.
“The law is what the law is. If they get their land in trust, there’s an absolute right for them to get some kind of gaming,” Crosby said.
Cromwell predicts the tribe will be ready to put shovels in the ground before then. “With the continued support of the Legislature and the governor we look forward to breaking ground next year and bringing thousands of jobs to the commonwealth,” he said.
While the tribe already has a host agreement with Taunton and a vote of support in a city election, it faces a myriad of hurdles to its $500 million Project First Light. Chief among them is the tribe’s application to have land taken into federal trust by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The tribe must also win approval of its compact with Gov. Deval Patrick by the state Legislature and the BIA. The deal would pay the state on a sliding scale from 21 percent to 0 percent of gross gambling revenues depending on the level of competition in Southeastern Massachusetts. If Raynham gets the state’s lone slot license, the tribe would pay 15 percent, according to the deal. If there’s a full-fledged casino license awarded, the Mashpee Wampanoag could build a casino and pay nothing.
The tribe’s involvement in the casino debate is something KG Urban has objected to from the get-go.
In 2011, the company filed suit claiming the law’s preference to federally recognized tribes amounted to a “race-based, set aside” that violated the U.S. Constitution. That case remains unsettled.
On Monday, Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) Chairman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais said the Martha’s Vineyard-based tribe is dropping its appeal of a judge’s ruling in the KG Urban case that rejected the tribe’s wish to become a party to the suit.
Lawyers for the Aquinnah tribe are convinced that the state will prevail and, therefore, believe it’s no longer necessary for the tribe to join the suit to preserve its rights, Andrews-Maltais said Monday.
The state and the Aquinnah have not seen eye-to-eye on the tribe’s federal rights. The state’s position is that the Aquinnah waived rights to an Indian casino in its land claim settlement in 1987. The tribe disagrees.
There is still a possibility that the tribe could choose to offer gambling on its land in Aquinnah, Andrews-Maltais said.
“We’re evaluating all options that are available to us,” she said. “Right now the land that’s in trust is here in Aquinnah, but we’re going to continue to emphasize all options that are available to us. In the next couple of months we’ll know what the landscape is in the commonwealth, so we’re allowing the dust to settle and the picture in commonwealth to become clear so we know which option is most advantageous to us.”
by George Brennan