TAUNTON, Mass. (AP) — The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe was hoping for a vote of confidence from city residents as it pushed forward with plans to develop a $500 million resort casino.
If approved, Saturday’s referendum in Taunton — while nonbinding — would mark 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.
Proponents of the casino say it would provide a shot in the arm to a once-prosperous, blue-collar mill city that has struggled to replace manufacturing jobs lost in recent decades.
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But opponents worry the project would bring traffic headaches and increased crime, and contend that backers have overstated the economic benefits of casino gambling.
“Every concern that was out there we have answers and solutions and we are moving forward very successfully,” said Tribal Council chairman Cedric Cromwell, who described himself as excited and confident about the vote.
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 complex would eventually include 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.
“This is a good deal for the city because of the jobs and the money coming into the town,” said Terry Quinn, head of Together for Taunton, a pro-casino group largely funded by the tribe.
Quinn, a business owner and lifelong resident of Taunton, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the referendum.
Tony LaCourse, who chairs the anti-casino group Preserve Taunton’s Future, said the organization has been trying to rebut what he terms “half-truths” offered by project supporters.
“People just don’t know what they are voting on,” said LaCourse.
One major concern of opponents, he said, was the location of the proposed casino in the East Taunton neighborhood, close to three schools and sensitive environmental areas.
Casino proponents in the city of about 55,000 residents have 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.
Hoye has been a strong supporter of the project but has also indicated he would abide by the outcome of the nonbinding referendum.
Voters in the towns of Freetown and Lakeville turned thumbs down recently on a less detailed casino proposal offered by the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah.
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.
The state casino law that allows for up to three resort casinos gives exclusive rights to a federally recognized Indian tribe to develop a casino in southeastern Massachusetts if it can reach a compact with the state by July 31. Patrick told reporters earlier this week that he expected the negotiations to be completed by the deadline.
The tribe would also face other hurdles, including a requirement that the Taunton land be placed in federal trust.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.