TAUNTON, Mass. (AP) - The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe got a vote of confidence from Taunton residents as the tribe pushes forward with plans to develop a $500 million resort casino.
By a nearly 2-1 margin, voters in Saturday's referendum expressed support for having a casino in their southeastern Massachusetts community, according to the Taunton clerk's office.
While nonbinding, the 7,693-4,571 vote marks the first time local residents have expressed support for a casino project at the ballot box since Gov. Deval Patrick signed the state's new gambling law last year.
The law legalized casino gambling, authorizing the state to license up to three resort-style casinos and giving exclusive rights to a federally recognized Indian tribe to develop one of the casinos if the tribe can reach a compact with the state by July 31. The Indian casino would have to be in southeastern Massachusetts.
Voters in the towns of Freetown and Lakeville recently gave a thumbs-down to a less detailed casino proposal offered by the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah.
"We are overwhelmed by this resounding victory in Taunton," Tribal Council chairman Cedric Cromwell said in a statement. "But let's be clear. This is not just a victory for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, this is a victory for the future of this city, for every person looking for a good job, and for the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts."
Cromwell said the tribe will be back at work on Monday to finalize a compact with the governor on a project Cromwell said will create thousands of jobs and bring in millions in revenue. Patrick has said he expects negotiations on the compact will be completed by the summer deadline.
Proponents of the proposal say it will be a shot in the arm to the once-prosperous, blue-collar mill city that has struggled to replace manufacturing jobs lost in recent decades.
But opponents worried the project will bring traffic headaches and increased crime to the city of about 55,000. They contended that backers overstated the economic benefits of casino gambling. One major concern is the location of the proposed casino in the East Taunton neighborhood, close to three schools and sensitive environmental areas, said Tony LaCourse, chairman of the anti-casino group Preserve Taunton's Future.
After the vote, LaCourse said he and others individually will continue to push for the interests of the city and to ensure that any downside to the project will be mitigated. He said the group raised about $1,500 and will donate any left over money to the local schools.
"We knew that this was going to be a tough fight," he said. But considering it was a volunteer effort outfunded by project proponents, he said: "I'm proud of our team. We represented our community as best we could."
The tribe has an option to buy 146 acres in an industrial park at the junction of Routes 24 and 140, where it has proposed a 150,000-square-foot casino. The land will have to be placed in federal trust. Eventually, the tribe expects to add three hotels, retail shops, conference space and a water park.
Under a host community agreement negotiated with Mayor Thomas Hoye Jr. and approved 6-1 by the City Council, the tribe would make about $33 million in upfront payments to Taunton, including about $15 for traffic improvements. The deal also calls for minimum annual payments of $13 million after the casino begins operations.
Casino proponents heavily outspent the opposition in the weeks leading up to the vote.
Together for Taunton reported campaign expenditures of $300,000 between March 16 and May 22, according to the city clerk's office. Preserve Taunton's Future formed in mid-May and reported spending only $730 through the end of the month.
On another front since the law passed, Las Vegas casino operator Steve Wynn suspended plans to develop a resort casino in Foxborough after voters there elected two anti-casino candidates to the Board of Selectmen last month.