Tribe Casino Plans Remain Unchanged

Aquinnah Wampanoags Are Committed to Gaming Too; But First Mashpee Must Convince State Legislature

By IAN FEIN

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) remains interested in developing an off-Island casino, tribal council chairman Donald Widdiss said this week.

But before they identify or actively pursue a specific site, tribal members are waiting to see whether the Massachusetts legislature will vote to allow expanded gaming - a step it has consistently rejected in the past.

"In terms of what's out there, it's all speculation," Mr. Widdiss said yesterday about talk of a casino. "And quite frankly, there is no evidence that anything has changed."

Seeing gaming as an economic development opportunity that could benefit tribal members, the federally recognized Aquinnah tribe for years has maintained an active gaming corporation and retained attorneys and lobbyists, Mr. Widdiss said. But the topic has attracted new attention in recent weeks following federal recognition for the Mashpee Wampanoags, who are now aggressively pursuing a casino near Cape Cod.

Shortly after receiving federal recognition this spring, the Mashpee tribe joined with developers of the Mohegan Sun resort and casino in Connecticut to secure the rights to roughly 325 acres of land in Middleboro.

"The only thing that's different is public perception, because of the news coverage of Mashpee," Mr. Widdiss said. "Whether that's going to have any effect on the legislature is the issue."

Under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, federally recognized tribes have the right to develop casinos if gaming is permitted elsewhere in the state. The Massachusetts state senate has supported expanded gambling in the past, but the house of representatives has consistently opposed it. Just last year the house decisively rejected a bill to allow slot machines in state race tracks.

"It wasn't even close," said Rep. Eric T. Turkington, a Democrat who represents Falmouth and the Islands and has opposed expanded gaming. "The concern of the house in the past has been, as with potato chips, you can't just have one. Once you allow a casino, you're going to have two tribes, four race tracks and at least two depressed cities showing up and saying they want one too. That's the slope the house never wanted to go down in the past."

Meanwhile, legislators, tribal members, developers and casino opponents all await a study committee report set for release later this summer that was commissioned by Gov. Deval Patrick, who has yet to take a position on the issue. Though expanded gaming would likely still require approval from the house of representatives, casino supporters see Governor Patrick's study as a welcome change from former Gov. Mitt Romney, who was an avid opponent.

"The fact that Governor Patrick wanted to take an objective and fresh look is a good thing," Mr. Widdiss said, noting that tribal representatives met with the study committee earlier this spring. "But what that ultimately gets us, I don't know."

If it appears that the legislature is actually going to approve a gaming bill, the Aquinnah Wampanoags will be prepared to move quickly on the matter, Mr. Widdiss said. They are talking with potential development partners but are not ready to sign with anyone, and have yet to select any particular site for a casino because they are waiting to hear what types of restrictions the state might impose on gaming legislation, if it eventually passes.

While the Mashpee tribe is being active and vocal about its plans, Mr. Widdiss said the Aquinnah Wampanoags have learned from experience that it makes more sense to take a wait-and-see approach. The Aquinnah tribe in earlier years spent millions of dollars on unsuccessful casino efforts.

"Putting ourselves in a position of trying to influence the state legislature did not work before, so I think we made a conscious decision to be more contemplative about the whole thing this time around," Mr. Widdiss said. "We burned a lot of fuel back then, and the car didn't go anywhere."