TAUNTON — It appears as though the Mashpee Wampanoag's construction project in East Taunton has gone from building a casino and hotels to filling in holes.
The scale and scope of construction work at the site where the Cape Cod tribe hopes to open a $1 billion resort casino has shifted in the aftermath of a court ruling that throws the project’s future into question.
Instead of plowing forward to construct three hotels and a modern gambling casino — with an initial opening planned for summer of 2017 — a press release Friday indicates that the $1 billion endeavor is about to assume a holding pattern.
“The work on the Tribe’s reservation has turned to filling in trenches that have been excavated, implementing measures to avoid soil erosion, dust control, and securing equipment and materials, such as 2,000 tons of steel worth an estimated $8.2 million,” the press release states.
The news comes one week after a U.S. District Court Judge in Boston sided with an anti-casino group of residents, who in February filed a lawsuit — claiming the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2015 had no legal standing approving the tribe’s request to place “in trust” 151 acres in Taunton and 170 acres in Mashpee as sovereign, Indian reservation territory.
A press release issued Friday by Regan Communications Group, which represents the 2,000-plus-member tribe, quotes tribal chairman Cedric Cromwell as saying the proposed First Light Resort & Casino — which he’s said will create 2,600 permanent jobs and 1,000 construction jobs at the location adjacent Liberty & Union Industrial Park — is “a juggernaut you don’t stop on a dime.”
But instead of claiming that the massive construction project will continue unabated — while the Department of Interior considers a circuit-court appeal to Judge William Young’s ruling — Cromwell is quoted as saying that “the on-site activity now is only to render it safe and to secure tribal assets.”
The press release also insists that Genting Group of Malaysia, which is financing the project, is not cutting its losses.
The president of Resorts World Massachusetts, a Genting subsidiary, is quoted saying that “Genting Group remains committed to First Light and stands with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the City of Taunton.”
Taunton, as per an agreement with the tribe, is guaranteed a minimum $8 million annually. The tribe also is committed to paying for infrastructure upgrades such as new traffic signals and other improvements at some off-site intersections.
One of those improvement projects currently in progress is the installation of water mains and pipes along Stevens Street from Pinehill Street leading into the construction area.
That work, the press release says, “is on schedule to be completed by the end of August.”
The tribe and its supporters in the city, including Mayor Thomas Hoye Jr., were dealt a blow by Young’s decision rejecting the land-in-trust decision by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Young said the language of a Supreme Court ruling in 2009, commonly called the Carcieri decision, makes clear that only tribes recognized by the federal government in 1934 — the year the Indian Reorganization Act became law — are eligible to have land placed in trust.
If First Light were to open, the state would receive 17 percent of its gambling revenue, as compared to 25 percent from commercial casinos — two of which have been approved and are set to eventually open in Everett and Springfield.
Backers of the First Light project have included former Congressman Bill Delahunt, who worked as a lobbyist to represent the Mashpee Wampanoag as they worked toward attaining land in trust.
The press release also notes that other Indian tribes are supporting the Mashpee Wampanoag's effort to retain the land previously placed in trust.
"United South and Eastern tribes Sovereignty Protection Fund (USET and SPF) an alliance of 26 tribes has filed an amicus brief in support of the Interior Department authorizing re-establishment of the Mashpee tribe's homelands."