Mashpee Resurrects Embattled First Light Casino Project

Posted on: August 28, 2023, 07:18h. 

Last updated on: August 29, 2023, 11:32h.

Massachusetts’ Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe has said it’s “ready to proceed” with an interim economic development project. The Tribe believes it will provide a “financially solid pathway” to realizing its derailed First Light Casino.

Mashpee, Wampanoag, First Light, Taunton, Massachusetts
An artist’s rendering of the proposed $1 billion First Light Casino, which broke ground in 2016. It’s unclear whether resurrected plans for the casino are the same as the original. (Image: AP)

In a letter to the City Council of Taunton, Mass., seen by the Taunton Daily Gazette, Tribal Gaming Authority Chief Financial Officer Jim Erenzo said the interim project would create hundreds of jobs. These would “only grow during the future transition from an initial temporary project to the previously planned [casino] project,” he added.

While Erenzo didn’t expand on the nature of the “temporary project,” it could refer to a temporary casino, which is sometimes erected to boost finances, build customer bases, and train staff while a large casino resort is being built.

Nor is it clear whether the vision for the permanent casino remains the same as the original billion-dollar project.

Breaking Ground

The First Light originally broke ground in 2016, soon after the Obama administration took 321 acres of land in Taunton and Mashpee into trust as the tribe’s sovereign reservation. This was a necessary precursor for the tribe to organize gaming under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

The original project would have been developed in partnership with Malaysian casino giant Genting at a cost of $1 billion. But a legal challenge brought by a group of Taunton residents and bankrolled by casino magnate Neil Bluhm torpedoed plans for the First Light.

U.S. District Judge William Young determined that the federal government had been wrong to take the land into trust, because the tribe had been recognized after the enactment of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934. Despite being descended from the tribe that broke bread with the Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving, the Mashpee weren’t recognized until 2007.

The Trump administration agreed with the ruling and began the process of disestablishing the Mashpee’s reservation, stripping the tribe of sovereignty and preventing the casino project from moving forward.

The Mashpee found themselves in financial disarray and hundreds of millions in debt to Genting, which was assumed to have abandoned the casino project. But a senior Genting executive told in 2019 on condition of anonymity that the company still backed the project and fully believed it would happen.

First Light, Second Chance

In June 2020, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman overturned the 2016 decision, which he called “an abuse of discretion, and contrary to law.” The Biden administration later affirmed the land for the Mashpee.

Meanwhile, former Mashpee chairman Cedric Cromwell, who oversaw the original project, was sentenced to three years in prison in November 2022 for accepting bribes related to the First Light.

His successor, Brian Weeden, has refused to comment on whether the tribe would resurrect the project, preferring to emphasize the need for “healing” after the corruption of the Cromwell administration.

In February, a federal judge in Boston nixed an attempt by Taunton residents to revive their legal battle against the tribe.