Massachusetts Gaming Commission Demands Tribal Casino Update, Delays Consideration of Third IR License

Posted on: October 25, 2019, 02:00h. 

Last updated on: October 25, 2019, 10:27h.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) wants an update on the legal proceedings between the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the federal government regarding its proposed $1 billion casino resort in Taunton.

Massachusetts gaming Mashpee Wampanoag casino
Massachusetts gaming regulators are holding off on considering issuing its final commercial casino license until the Mashpee Wampanoag drama plays out. (Image: WBSM)

The Mashpee Wampanoags – recognized only in 2007 – are one of two federally recognized tribes in Massachusetts.

In 2015, the Department of the Interior (DOI) declared 150 acres of land in Mashpee and 170 acres in Taunton as the tribe’s initial reservation. But in September 2018, the DOI rescinded its decision, saying it erred in taking the 321 acres of land into trust.

That halted the $1 billion casino project – dubbed First Light Resort and Casino. Subsequently, US Rep. William Keating (D-MA) introduced legislation in Congress that would reaffirm the tribe’s Mashpee and Taunton acreage as land in federal trust, effectively overriding the DOI. The bill – opposed by President Donald Trump – passed the House, but has stalled in the Senate.

Ongoing federal appeals, paired with legislation that seeks to supersede the court’s verdict, has created a convoluted legal mess.

It’s very complicated,” MGC Chair Cathy Judd-Stein said at Thursday’s meeting. “I think it’s probably a good time to actually update us more formally.”

The five commissioners requested that MGC executive director Edward Bedrosian and the gaming agency’s legal staff present a comprehensive update on the ongoing legal complexity at a future meeting.

Slow Role

Massachusetts gaming regulators are holding off on considering the third and final commercial integrated casino resort license – earmarked for the Region C area, consisting of Bristol, Plymouth, Nantucket, Dukes, and Barnstable counties – until the Mashpee dispute is settled.

Taunton is in Bristol, and if First Light is allowed to proceed, the MGC doesn’t believe it would receive any minimum $500 million bids for the Region C license because of gaming saturation in the southeastern part of the state.

State Sen. Marc Pacheco (D-Bristol) lives in Taunton and appeared before the MGC Thursday.

“I’m here to ask the commission to continue with your thoughtful deliberation about everything that is going on and to not make a decision, even though it may be in our best interest, because it’s within your jurisdiction under existing law to go out for a commercial casino if the commission chooses to,” Pacheco said.

“If I know that there is absolutely no way that a Native American casino can come to be in Region C, I’d be one of the first people here to urge you to do so. But if that uncertainty still looms out there at any level, it will have a significant effect on those that even bid,” he concluded.

Backup Plans

The $960 million MGM Springfield and $2.6 billion Encore Boston Harbor are the two other integrated resorts legalized under the Massachusetts Gaming Expansion Act. Both properties are failing to meet the gross gaming revenue (GGR) expectations they floated to the MGC during their bidding.

I currently feel no sense of urgency,” Commissioner Enrique Zuniga explained. “We have not seen the levels that the applicants themselves predicted, because they did predict certain revenues from year one, and they’re not currently seeing those revenues.”

Chicago-based Rush Street Gaming was the lone bidder in 2015 for Region C, when the MGC denied its $677 million proposal for the Brockton Fairgrounds. The company says it remains interested.

In August, the commission received a $300 million proposal to build a slots parlor and horse racetrack in Wareham. The project would require state legislation to pass, allowing the MGC to issue a second slots-only license.