Massachusetts: Mashpee Wampanoag tribe’s $1 billion casino plan resurfaces

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, which has long planned to develop a $1 billion resort and casino in Taunton, Massachusetts, is now in discussions about a new proposal for the project. The venture, known as the First Light Resort & Casino, was initially put on hold shortly after the commencement of construction in 2016 due to a series of legal challenges.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Gaming Authority has formally requested a meeting with the Taunton City Council to discuss the project. In an August 4th letter addressed to the City Council, Jim Erenzo, the Chief Financial Officer of the Tribal Gaming Authority, referred to the Taunton casino project as the “Intergovernmental Agreement Project” (IGA project).

Erenzo stated: “Despite a host of delays outside the control of the Gaming Authority, we are ready to proceed with developing new economic opportunities in the City that we believe will provide a financially solid pathway to the IGA project.”

One of the significant aspects of this new proposal is its potential impact on both the timeline and the scale of the original casino project. Erenzo emphasized that the interim project would be a substantial source of job creation, spanning positions in construction and offering permanent employment. He added that the job opportunities could continue to grow as the project transitions from its initial temporary phase to the originally planned IGA Project.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council and the Tribal Gaming Authority have remained tight-lipped when it comes to divulging specifics about this new proposal. Despite local media attempts to gather more information through various channels, including public relations contacts, no additional details have emerged.

However, the office of Mayor Shaunna O’Connell has confirmed that representatives from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Gaming Authority will meet with the Taunton City Council at a date yet to be determined, reports The Taunton Daily Gazette.

The initial vision for the First Light Resort & Casino, back in 2016, was nothing short of grand. The plan encompassed 3,000 slot machines, 150 table games, 40 poker tables, fine dining establishments, an international buffet, a 24-hour cafe, three 15-story luxury hotels, a lounge and performance stage, an indoor pool, retail stores, multi-purpose function rooms, meeting spaces, a spa, and a water park.

However, legal hurdles began to plague the project. In 2015, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s decision to place vast tracts of land in Mashpee and Taunton into a protected trust for the casino set the stage for a protracted legal battle.

Opponents argued that this land trust designation violated the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. They secured a victory in U.S. District Court, leading to a suspension of casino construction, following 2016’s groundbreaking.

The legal saga continued with the Department of the Interior reversing its stance in 2018, claiming that the Mashpee Wampanoags did not meet the criteria for land-in-trust status. This decision, however, only led to more litigation.

In 2020, another twist unfolded when a U.S. District Court once again reversed the 2018 decision, sending the case back to the Department of the Interior. Early in 2021, under the new administration of President Joe Biden, the Department of the Interior withdrew its appeal against the Mashpee Wampanoags’ claim to land-in-trust.

Yet, despite these developments, the story is far from over. In March, opponents of the casino development in Taunton filed a notice of appeal challenging the February decision in U.S. District Court. This ongoing legal battle has kept the fate of the First Light Resort & Casino in a state of uncertainty.

Discussions regarding the future of the casino project, as well as Taunton’s intergovernmental agreement with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, have been conducted behind closed doors during Taunton City Council meetings over recent months.

Mayor Shaunna O’Connell’s office has refrained from disclosing specific details regarding the newly proposed development from the Tribal Gaming Authority due to legal constraints and confidentiality surrounding executive sessions.

Notably, the mayor’s office has raised concerns about the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s adherence to the payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) Agreement established in 2012.

This agreement, applicable to sovereign entities like the tribe, mandates payments for services such as road maintenance and public works. Mayor O’Connell commented: “The Tribe has not met their financial obligation to us for several years. To move forward, they need to honor their previous commitments.”