Massachusetts Tribe Earns Federal Land In Trust Status

In this May 29, 2014 photo, Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Chairman Cedric Cromwell sits behind his desk at the community/government Center in Mashpee.(Stephan Savoia/AP)
In this May 29, 2014 photo, Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Chairman Cedric Cromwell sits behind his desk at the community/government Center in Mashpee.(Stephan Savoia/AP)

The federal government has committed to acquiring over 300 acres of land into trust for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, a critical step as the tribe seeks to build a resort casino.

The surprise late-Friday approval marks the first lands to be federally designated for the Cape Cod-based tribe whose ancestors encountered the Pilgrims nearly four centuries ago. Under federal law, a tribe may conduct gambling on trust land if the land is the "initial reservation" of an Indian tribe.

Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell called it "truly a glorious, monumental day" for the Mashpee Wampanoag, which became a federally recognized tribe in 2007 and has proposed a casino complex that includes three hotels, an event center, restaurants, retail stores and a water park.

"Today, history has come full-circle," he said in a statement. "While some outside the Tribe will focus only on our quest to build a destination resort casino in Taunton in accordance with the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, for us this goes far beyond economic development. This is about controlling our own destiny and preserving our ancient culture."

Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn said the government will acquire 170 acres in the town of Mashpee for tribal governmental, cultural and conservation purposes and 151 acres in Taunton for building and operating a gambling facility and resort.

The Mashpee lands have long been owned, controlled or used by the tribe for government administration and cultural and ceremonial events, according to Cromwell. The Taunton lands, which are nearly 50 miles from the tribe's historic homeland on Cape Cod, are privately owned but the tribe has options on the properties.

The federal decision lifts a degree of uncertainty over the future of casino gambling in the Bay State.

The tribe has long promised that a decision from federal authorities was imminent, prompting state gambling regulators to delay the competition for the state's third and final resort casino license, which is reserved for the southeastern region where the Mashpee Wampanoag casino would be located.

Setting federal land in a trust designation is a necessary step toward opening a casino on sovereign Indian land without state approval.

But Mass Gaming and Entertainment, a rival company hoping to open a casino in nearby Brockton, has said the tribal casino outcome is still far from certain, with more steps in the federal process and, potentially, legal challenges.

It is urging the state Gaming Commission to commit to awarding the final resort casino license — regardless of what happens with the tribe's casino plans.

"We should not be held in limbo if the commission cannot give us some certainty that a qualified applicant, which we believe we are, will not be denied the Region C license because of the uncertainty of a potential tribal casino," said Neil Bluhm, chairman of Rush Street Gaming, the Chicago-based parent company of Mass Gaming, this week.

Penn National Gaming, which owns the recently opened Plainridge Park Casino in nearby Plainville, opposes the request, noting in a letter Friday that the prospect of a tribe-run casino and a private casino in close proximity has negative financial consequences to the state.

Under the state's compact with the tribe, it would claim 17 percent of the tribal casino's gross gambling revenues but zero if another resort casino was allowed to open in the region.

"The commission repeatedly has informed applicants that it is under no obligation to issue a license in any region, including Region C," the company wrote to regulators.

Mass Gaming is the only company still seeking the Region C license. The state has already issued two other resort casino licenses: one to MGM for a Springfield project and another to casino magnate Steve Wynn for a Boston-area casino. Plainridge Park has a slots parlor license.

Elaine Driscoll, spokeswoman for the gaming commission, said Friday's announcement provides "further important information" as the commission weighs how to move forward in the southeastern region in the coming weeks.

Gov. Charlie Baker, through his spokeswoman, said he was monitoring the latest developments, noting Friday's announcement was "a long and anticipated" one for the tribe in their quest for a casino.

Senate President Rosenberg said gambling regulators have to weigh the "significant market oversaturation that would no doubt occur with multiple resort casinos" in the region.

This article was originally published on September 18, 2015.


More from WBUR

Listen Live