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The panel overseeing the state's casino gambling law agreed Tuesday to accept preliminary applications from commercial developers in southeastern Massachusetts, who had previously been excluded under a provision that gave preference to a Native American tribe in the region.
The move, described as an "imperfect" solution by Massachusetts Gaming Commission chair Stephen Crosby, does not guarantee that commercial developers will be able to compete for a casino license in the southeast, nor does it jettison a proposal by the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe to build a casino in Taunton.
The five-member panel agreed to a proposal offered by Commissioner James McHugh, a retired judge, to allow Phase 1 casino applications to be submitted even as the tribe continues efforts to overcome a series of obstacles, including the U.S. Interior Department's rejection of a compact the Mashpee negotiated with Gov. Deval Patrick.
The commission delayed a formal vote on the plan until next week, allowing for a brief public comment period.
The Phase I process essentially amounts to a background check by the commission to determine if applicants are financially and ethically qualified to move into the second and more competitive phase of the process, one that will result in the actual awarding of casino licenses.
Following that initial phase - expected to take up to six months - the commission said it would decide whether to move on to Phase 2 in southeastern Massachusetts. By then, McHugh said, there should be a clearer picture of the tribe's prospects for success.
"It strikes me as likely that we will know a lot more than we do now," he said.
The year-old law allows up to three resort-style casinos in the state, one in each of three geographical regions. But the law gave first crack in the southeastern region to a federally-recognized tribe.
Many area legislators have argued that the provision will keep the region from enjoying the job creation and other economic benefits of casino development as quickly as the other regions.
Commercial developers must submit a $400,000 fee along with their preliminary applications, the same as companies seeking to build in other parts of the state. That would seem a risky proposition for companies interested in southeastern Massachusetts, given there would be no guarantee they would even be able to compete for a license in the future.
But McHugh pointed out that there are risks for any casino developer hoping to build in Massachusetts.
Cedric Cromwell, tribal chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag, said he remained confident that the tribe's plans would move forward.
"We understand the gaming commission wants to have a back up plan, but we believe it will prove unnecessary because we will be successful in our plans for a destination resort casino in Taunton," Cromwell said in a statement.
"As a federally recognized tribe we have the unique right to conduct gaming in our ancestral homeland. Once we get the green light, we expect to start construction and put people to work immediately," Cromwell added.
The tribe and Patrick have promised to renegotiate the compact, which was rejected by Interior in part because it promised the state too large a share of gambling revenue from the casino.
Even if a suitable compact is reached, there are still other legal hurdles, including a requirement that the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs approve a land-in-trust application for the Mashpee, which has no tribal lands of its own.
The commission opted against imposing a deadline for the tribe to resolve the issues.
This program aired on December 11, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.
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