Tribe breaks ground on new Taunton casino project

TAUNTON, Mass. (AP) — The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe has officially broken ground on a casino in Massachusetts.

Tribal Council Chairman Cedric Cromwell led tribe, business and elected leaders in a boisterous Tuesday morning ceremony that included Native American prayers, songs and chants.

A now-vacant building was ceremonially torn down at the project site, a tribe-owned industrial park in Taunton south of Boston. It’s part of the tribe’s recently declared federal reservation of over 300 acres.

Democratic Taunton Mayor Thomas Hoye called the project a “game changer” for the region.

The First Light Resort and Casino is expected to open in phases starting in 2017. It will cost roughly $1 billion and include a casino, hotel and entertainment offerings.

The tribe is competing with MGM and Wynn to open Massachusetts’ first Las Vegas-style resort.

With an estimated $1 billion price tag, First Light represents the splashiest entry yet in the region between Boston and Providence, Rhode Island.

Plainridge Park, a more modest slots parlor and harness racing track, opened last year in Plainville, Massachusetts, some 25 miles from Taunton.

Over the state line in Lincoln, Rhode Island, the Twin River Casino has evolved from a greyhound track to a slots parlor and now a full-scale casino.

Rhode Island voters in November will also decide on the company’s plan to open another full-scale casino in Tiverton, near the Massachusetts state line.

Keith Foley, a senior vice president at Moody’s Investors Service, says it isn’t surprising the Boston-Providence corridor has become a focal point in New England’s casino race.

“These are the people that are making the trips to Connecticut,” he said, referring to the region’s only two major resort casinos, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.

But like MGM’s western Massachusetts casino and Wynn’s Boston-area project, the tribe’s First Light resort faces headwinds.

Residents have challenged the federal government’s decision to grant the tribe land in trust and, by extension, the tribe’s right to open the casino, which is being backed by the Malaysia-based Genting Group.

“It is a high-risk bluff being taken by the tribe, but it does nothing to change the dynamics of the suit,” Adam Bond, the Massachusetts lawyer representing the Taunton residents, said Monday. He declined to elaborate.

Neil Bluhm, a prominent casino builder from Chicago, is helping finance the lawsuit.

The owner of the Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh and the SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia, among others, is proposing a $677 million resort in Brockton, Massachusetts, roughly 16 miles from the tribe’s Taunton casino site.

Bluhm suggests the two resorts, along with other gambling options in the region, can coexist and provide healthy state revenues, as well as long-term regional economic development and job creation.

But the tribe, which traces its ancestry to the Native Americans that encountered the Pilgrims about 400 years ago, has warned Massachusetts regulators that there are negative financial consequences to allowing the Brockton casino to move forward.

Specifically, it points to a 2013 revenue-sharing deal that obligates the tribe pay 17 percent of its annual gambling profits to the state, but only if no other casino is allowed to operate in the region.

The state Gaming Commission will decide whether to grant Bluhm a gambling license later this month.

Richard McGowan, a business professor and gambling expert at Boston College, isn’t convinced either casino is feasible.

“Both plans are unrealistic,” he said. “Once the Wynn casino is built near Boston, then the Boston casinogoers will no longer have to travel. That is the casino which will reap the profits of Massachusetts casino gambling.”

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