Mashpee Chairman Responds: Nothing To See Here

Cedric Cromwell responds to the torrent of bad news about casinos in southeastern Massachusetts.

Last week, I wrote about what a mess the state has made of its attempt to put a casino in southeastern Massachusetts. The idea was to grant the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian tribe an exclusive license to operate there, but the tribe’s efforts to open a resort casino in Taunton have bogged down. They still don’t have a compact with the state, and they still don’t have reservation land into trust—two things they need in order to move forward with their plan.

Meanwhile, the state is making noise about opening up the southeastern region of the state to other commercial groups looking to bid on a casino license. In the Cape Cod Times, George Brennan wrote a sharp analysis, titled, “Mashpee tribe poised to lose certain bet.” He writes:

“Now, the tribe’s path to a $500 million casino in Taunton faces more hurdles than its casino efforts did in 2007. That includes an increasingly impatient Massachusetts Gaming Commission that wants to respect the tribe’s federal rights while making sure Southeastern Massachusetts doesn’t fall too far behind in the sweepstakes for jobs and revenue.

To put it in football terms, the tribe is at the two-minute warning with its opponent threatening to score and take the lead.

“The control that seemed to be in their grasp appears to be slipping away,” state Rep. Randy Hunt, R-Sandwich, said Wednesday.

Not good, obviously. In response to the torrent of bad news, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribal chairman Cedric Cromwell wrote an op-ed that ran in the Cape Cod Times over the weekend. The headline is, “Wampanoag making progress on casino,” but it might as well be, “Nothing to see here.” Cromwell, who is up for re-election as chairman in February, is basically making the case that all is fine and well with the Mashpee casino push. He writes:

The destination resort casino that we have proposed for southeastern Massachusetts is much further along than any other project in the state. We are making significant progress.

The project is already under design. The development plans are now under environmental review by federal and state officials. We have already reached a host agreement with the city of Taunton, and the voters have overwhelmingly approved the project. Mitigation funds have already been set aside, and we have already issued the first payment to Taunton.

That’s all good and well, but what really catches my eye is when he says, “We expect construction to begin next year, which will create a minimum of 1,000 construction-industry jobs.” To clarify, next year is 2013, the very same year that starts in three weeks. That strikes me as extremely optimistic. As I wrote last week, even if the notoriously slow Department of Interior does grant into trust the land that the tribe needs to open a casino, that decision will be almost certainly be immediately challenged by lawsuits that could tie up development. I almost have an easier time seeing the Red Sox in the playoffs next fall than I do a Mashpee Wampanoag casino getting built (I said almost—let’s not get crazy).

All of this does open up one very interesting possibility, though. When I interviewed Cromwell a year ago for the profile I wrote on him in the magazine, he told me that the tribe may consider starting construction on a casino before actually having their land designated as a reservation. Although Cromwell has said many times that he believes a Mashpee Wampanoag casino is inevitable, starting construction would still be very risky: the casino legislation is explicit in stating that the casino must be on Indian land in order to operate. But it would also create a pretty undeniable fact on the ground—namely, a casino that nobody would want to see turn into a white elephant. It’d be a bold move and still seems unlikely. Then again, not too long ago, it would have seemed unlikely for anyone to describe the Mashpee’s situation as a desperate two-minute drill.