A second federally recognized Indian tribe is courting Fall River as the site for a casino.
Last night, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) met with a Fall River City Council committee to pitch a casino they say would not upend plans for a 300-acre biotechnology park.
As the Times went to press last night, the committee on economic development and tourism was still considering the Martha’s Vineyard tribe’s proposal.
“I am here to give you an alternative,” said Naomi Carney, chairwoman of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Gaming Corp. “We have put a lot of money into this. … We want to start off sensibly and economically feasibly.”
The Aquinnah tribe’s proposal ups the ante in the ongoing casino debate in the financially depressed city and pits it against a sister tribe from Cape Cod that is eyeing the SouthCoast BioPark site.
Last week, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe said it wants to purchase 300 acres set aside for the BioPark near Route 24 to build a $500 million resort that would include a casino, three hotels and a shopping mall.
But that plan, endorsed by Fall River Mayor Will Flanagan, was criticized by some city leaders fearful that taking a gamble on a casino could prompt state officials to move a $17 million research facility proposed by the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth for the biotechnology park. New Bedford is already trying to lure the UMass project to that city.
The Patrick administration said last week the Mashpee Wampanoag’s investors would have to reimburse $34 million for a new Route 24 exit ramp if the casino plans move forward. And a state restriction forbids the land off Route 24 near the Freetown line from being used as a casino site without legislative approval.
“There’s a risk we could lose both projects and that would be a shame for our city,” said councilor Bradford Kilby, who was one of four city councilors to sign a resolution rejecting the plans to relocate the BioPark. “I’m not against a casino. I’d like to have both.”
Though Flanagan said he would try to find a new location, the Aquinnah Wampanoag say their plan gives the city the best option to have both a casino and the BioPark. The tribe has an option to purchase nearly 230 acres of land owned by John Hasenjaeger near the Fall River-Dartmouth-Westport town lines. Though Hasenjaeger declined to disclose a sale price for the land, which is surrounded by 20,000 acres of protected forest for the city’s drinking water, it is valued at $877,000, according to records.
The property is located near two exit ramps of Route 195 and Route 24, said Donald Flanagan, president and CEO of Brandon Associates, a public relations firm representing the Aquinnah.
“It’s really an ideal spot,” said Flanagan, who is no relation to the city’s mayor.
The Aquinnah casino proposal wouldn’t include a shopping mall and other venues that might take away from restaurants and shops already in and around the city, Flanagan said.
“We’re not going to come in and propose a mega complex,” Flanagan said. “We don’t want to compete with the community businesses already established in Fall River.”
The Aquinnah tribe is also willing to talk to the state about building a commercial casino, even though it believes it would have sovereign rights for an Indian casino if the state follows through on its plans to approve expanded gambling in the state, Flanagan said.
State leaders declined to comment yesterday.
“I can’t comment on a proposal I haven’t seen,” said Kofi Jones, a spokeswoman for Gov. Deval Patrick’s top economic development aide.
Mashpee tribal council chairman Cedric Cromwell also declined comment through a spokeswoman. The Mashpee tribe’s bid to purchase 300 acres is set to be discussed tomorrow by the Fall River Redevelopment Authority.
Both proposals come as the state Senate is poised to debate its own version of a bill next month to legalize casinos in Massachusetts. In April, the House approved two resort-style casinos and slots at the state’s four race tracks.
The Senate bill is expected to consider the impact of the two federally recognized Indian tribes, which would have federal rights to open casinos if expanded gambling is legalized.
The Aquinnah tribe was federally recognized in 1987, the Mashpee Wampanoag in 2007. Both have committed to not build casinos on their home turf. Instead, they’ve looked to other parts of Southeastern Massachusetts where they have historical ties, according to leaders from both tribes.
In 1997, the state House overwhelmingly rejected a casino proposal by the Vineyard tribe. The Aquinnah also had a failed attempt to build a $25 million high-stakes bingo hall.
Meanwhile, the Mashpee Wampanoag had a deal to build a casino in Middleboro that the tribe officially scrapped last week. The Mashpee tribe has the backing of Arkana Ltd., a subsidiary of casino giant Genting Group, which bankrolled Foxwoods Resort and Casino in Connecticut.
The Aquinnah do not yet have a money partner, but won’t be working with foreign investors, Flanagan said.
“They want to expand, but they want to use Massachusetts resources and Massachusetts businesses that can provide financing,” he said.
Standard-Times reporter Charis Anderson contributed to this report.
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