Three years ago, everyone expected that the state's first casino would be placed in the town of Middleborough. But today, the deal the town inked with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe of Cape Cod appears to be in jeopardy.
As lawmakers begin debate on the expansion of gambling in the state, Middleborough residents have not forgotten how the battle over a casino tore their southeastern Massachusetts town apart -- and how quickly it happened. Just a few months after the town manager announced in early 2007 that the Mashpees were interested in town land, the showdown came on a stifling hot July afternoon beneath a tent outside of Middleborough High School.
Close to 4,000 of the town's 22,000 residents attended the vote, making it one of the largest town meetings in the history of the Commonwealth. And in the end, the $7 million in annual cash payments, plus revenues from a 4 percent lodging assessment, were just too good to pass up. The pro-casino residents won the day with a 2-to-1 vote. And when it was over, Glenn Marshall, the chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, acknowledged the opposition and the ferocity of the fight, saying he was ready to help make the town whole again.
But a lot can happen in three years. And it has. Chairman Marshall is now in prison after pleading guilty to fraud and embezzling nearly $400,000 in tribal money. And then, last year, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could no longer take land into trust for tribes not officially federally recognized by 1934. Until Congress acts, that ruling prevents the Mashpees from setting aside tribal land to build a tax-free Indian casino. It's also encouraged the Native Americans to look for a different casino site, including in Fall River.
Clyde Barrow of the Center for Policy Analysis at UMass Dartmouth, says that by looking at other potential casino sites, the Mashpees are indicating a willingness to apply for a commercial casino license -- one that would bring tax revenue to the state. And, Barrow says, that should please the state's political leadership.
Town officials and tribal representatives are not talking about the situation. Numerous interview requests made to Middleborough Town Manager Charles Cristello's office asking to speak with him, the chairman of the Board of Selectmen or their designee were not answered. Likewise, Brooke Scanel, spokesperson for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, also said Wampanoag Chairman Cedric Cromwell would not grant an interview for this story.
It appears the Middleborough Board of Selectmen are as much in the dark as town residents. Several weeks ago, the board sent a letter to the Mashpees asking them to clarify their intentions in town. So far there's been no response.
Adam Bond, who resigned from the Middleborough Board of Selectmen in frustration last year, said town leaders should have sat down with the tribe months or even years ago, rather than assuming the deal would stick.
And with so much confusion, Bond once was the public face of the town's pro-casino movement, now he says he'd be just as happy if the Mashpees went away.
"I’m just at the point where I think a lot of the people are in this town," Bond said. "Like, enough already, either come or don’t come, I really don’t care anymore. It’s been so long we’ve been waiting one way or another, who cares?"
The politics of gaming are heating up again in Massachusetts, just as they did when Deval Patrick first took office, and as they did under both Governors Mitt Romney and Bill Weld. But despite the battle residents of Middelborough went through to approve a casino in town, just what role Middleborough will have in the newest gaming push is unclear.