Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s $1B Massachusetts Casino Plan Revived

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The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe of Massachusetts has reignited its ambitions to establish the First Light Casino in Taunton, Massachusetts.

The First Light Casino project initially broke ground in 2016, shortly after the Obama administration designated 321 acres of land in Taunton and Mashpee as the tribe’s sovereign reservation.

The designation allowed the tribe to facilitate a new Massachusetts brick & mortar casino under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The original vision for the casino was a partnership with the Malaysian casino giant, Genting, with an estimated cost of $1 billion.

Obstacles, including community opposition and a federal ruling, have so far hampered the casino plans, which have not progressed any further along in construction in seven years. However, this month, the Tribe’s representatives met with the city council to discuss a new version of the idea.

“Despite a host of delays outside the control of the Gaming Authority, we are ready to proceed with developing new economic opportunities in the City that we believe will provide a financially solid pathway to the IGA project,” said Jim Erenzo, the CFO of the Tribal Gaming Authority, in a letter to the city council earlier this month.

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A New Dawn for the First Light Casino

Journalists from local Massachusetts paper The Taunton Daily Gazette this week confirmed that Taunton Council has accepted the offer of talks with the Mashpee Wampanoag on a potential return of the casino plans.

It comes eight years after the start of a protracted legal battle that ended with the shelving of the project.

In 2017, U.S. District Judge William Young ruled that the federal government’s decision to take the land into trust was incorrect. This was based on the fact that the tribe had been recognized after the enactment of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934.

Even though the Mashpee can trace their lineage back to the tribe that celebrated the first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims, they were not officially recognized until 2007.

The Department of Interior, under the Trump administration, concurred with this ruling in 2018.

The result stripped the tribe of its sovereignty and halted the casino project’s progression. Financial turmoil ensued for the Mashpee, leading to significant debts to Genting.

However, the casino giant continued to publicly back the Tribe as it fought against the ruling. In June 2020, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman overturned the 2016 decision describing it as “an abuse of discretion, and contrary to law.”

The Biden administration subsequently affirmed the land for the Mashpee. But the legal battle continues.

Continuing Controversy

Despite that, the Tribe is seemingly pushing ahead with negotiations for the casino. It has been negotiating with the Taunton Council behind closed doors for several months before suggesting an open public meeting.

“The city will be reviewing all aspects of the Tribe’s plans, to assess the effect on our city,” said Taunton Mayor Shaunna O’Connell, as reported by the Gazette.

As well as dealing with the council, the plan could still prove controversial with locals, even if the feds approve.

Cedric Cromwell, the former Mashpee chairman who oversaw the original project, was sentenced to three years in prison in November 2022 for accepting bribes related to the First Light Casino.

Brian Weeden, his successor, has been cautious about discussing the project’s revival, emphasizing the tribe’s need for “healing” after the corruption during Cromwell’s tenure.

The original plans for the $1B First Light Casino included more than 3,000 slot machines, 150 table games, three towers of 300 hotel rooms, nine retail stores, and 30,000 feet of event space.

The plans for the updated version are tightly under wraps for now, although Mashpee officials have said the scope of the project has changed signifcantly.

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