New Casino Deal Gives Mashpee Tribe Until 2012 To Build In Fall River

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By: Brian Kehrl
Published: 10/22/10

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe has less than two years to obtain a gaming license to operate a casino in Fall River.

Under terms of a new deal negotiated between representatives of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council, the tribe’s Malaysian casino investors, and city officials, the tribe will purchase outright 45 acres of property off Route 24 in northern Fall River.

An option for the tribe and its investors to purchase the remainder of the 300-acre, proposed casino property will remain in effect until July 31, 2012, according to officials from the Fall River Redevelopment Authority, which owns the property.

If the tribe has not obtained a casino license by then, and the redevelopment authority does not extend the agreement, the sun will set on the deal, and the city agency will purchase the property back from the tribe.

The new land sale agreement, approved by the redevelopment authority board on Tuesday afternoon and expected to be signed by the tribal council in the coming weeks, provides the tribe the flexibility to pursue a casino license through either the federal or state processes while giving the city some security in case the tribe cannot clear the various roadblocks still in the way of the tribe and its long-sought-after casino.

The land sale would also provide the redevelopment authority with a boost of cash to pursue other projects in the city, including a biotechnology manufacturing facility previously planned for the proposed casino property.

In interviews with the Enterprise and other news outlets and statements to various government agencies, Mashpee tribe Chairman Cedric Cromwell has declared that the tribe’s casino plans are “inevitable.”

However, city officials seem less certain, ensuring that the city will regain control of the property should the casino not be built, an explicit provision that was not built into the tribe’s agreement with Middleborough.

The tribe will likely need either a change in federal law, allowing it to establish a reservation, or a change in state law allowing casino gambling in Massachusetts. Additionally, a deed restriction prohibiting a casino on the property will need to be lifted by an act of the state Legislature. Both houses approved bills to remove the restriction, but the change was caught up in negotiations with Governor Deval L. Patrick and so never became law.

The tribe will pay $4.5 million for the initial 45 acres, or about $100,000 per acre, in addition to a $200,000 nonrefundable deposit for the option to purchase, according to Kenneth J. Fiola, executive director of the Fall River Office of Economic Development. The full sale price for the 300 acres is set at $21 million.

Mr. Fiola said he expects the initial sale to be closed within a few weeks.

By comparison the initial, 125 acres the tribe’s investors purchased in Middleborough in 2007 cost $1.8 million.
City officials declined to provide a copy of the agreement, stating that it still must be edited for grammatical errors. The redevelopment authority board met for more than an hour to discuss the terms in executive session, from which it returned to approve it. Mr. Fiola, Mayor William Flanagan, and redevelopment authority Chairman William Kenney answered questions about the deal after the public meeting adjourned.

Mr. Fiola said he was actively involved in the negotiations with separate attorneys representing the tribe and the investors, from Arkana LLC, a subsidiary of a large Malaysian casino and resort development firm.

The new deal replaces a previous agreement that hinged on the state government approving expanded gambling this year. Mr. Fiola said this week that while the governor and the state Legislature could not come to terms on a gaming bill, there are indications that the issue may be brought up again during the next legislative session.

The redevelopment authority board voted three to one to approve the new deal this week, with the members taking similar stances to their previous, three-to-two vote. One of the two dissenting board members was not present on Tuesday.

The lone opposition vote this week, from Chairman William Kenney, was based on concerns about the tribe circumventing environmental protections if the land is deemed sovereign territory, Mr. Kenney said.

He said that during negotiations he had asked the tribe to waive its immunity from state and local environmental protections, but the tribal negotiators declined. He said his environmental concerns are piqued by the history of the property, which was cut out from a state forest a decade ago at the request of the city to create economic development opportunities.

He said he tried to convince his fellow board members to take a hard stand on the issue, but his efforts were to no avail.
He said his vote was “reluctantly, no.”

“I am not pro-casino, or anti-casino,” he said. “I am pro jobs.”

Like the previous agreement, the new deal allows the tribe to pursue either federal Indian gaming process or a state process, should Beacon Hill approve a bill to expand gaming in Massachusetts, according to Mr. Fiola.

The 2012 timing of the deal is pegged to the date when construction on a highway interchange between Route 24 and the property is expected to be completed, as well as to when the state Legislature’s next formal session is scheduled to conclude, Mr. Fiola said.

During an open question session after the meeting adjourned, a Fall River resident and news reporter from Fall River questioned whether the city could trust the tribe with one of the largest projects in the city’s history, given the past problems with its leadership and its decision to back out of a gaming contract with Middleborough. The resident also questioned whether the tribe had actually filed an amended land into trust application, as tribal representatives have stated.

Mr. Fiola, though, said he has full confidence in the tribe and confirmed that the application has been filed.

“This is not Middleborough, part two,” Mr. Kenney said.

Mr. Fiola argued that this site is better than the Middleborough location, given its proximity to the highway, which will cut down on the hefty infrastructure costs the tribe and its investors were facing in Middleborough.

Mr. Fiola and Fall River Mayor William Flanagan pitched the project as a joint venture with the tribe and its investors, one in which both sides have a stake in success. The city wants the jobs, Mr. Fiola said. And the city wants revenue from the project, Mr. Flanagan said. The tribe wants to start a successful casino, and the financial backers want a return on their investment.

“It is just like any other private section business,” Mr. Fiola said.

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