The Herald News, Saturday, March 31, 2011 – Page A1
Aquinnah tribal officials announced Friday a purchase-and-sale agreement to buy 230 acres in the eastern part of the city near Westport and Dartmouth for a casino resort.
Fall River is the third community where the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head-Aquinnah has announced a land purchase this week. The tribe identified adjacent sites in Freetown and Lakeville on Thursday.
The tribe has long discussed acquiring the Fall River land tract with its owner, John Hasenjaeger of Walpole.
The Aquinnahs delivered a letter Thursday asking Gov. Deval Patrick to open talks on a casino compact, tribal Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais said.
That letter identified the Freetown site off Route 140 after town officials there agreed to hold a referendum on May 29, and will be amended to include Lakeville (June 2 referendum) and Fall River, if the city agrees to hold a vote.
Tribal officials met with Fall River leaders Friday to reveal the targeted location. When asked later if the tribe prefers one community over the others, she laughed and said “I don’t have a favorite child.
“It’s just a strategy that makes more sense for us,” she said, offering few details besides the location, which has not been a secret.
The remote tract is near two small subdivisions off Indian Town and Blossom roads, would require a long easement connector to the latter road, and is less than a 10-minute drive to Interstate 195 near White’s of Westport on Route 6.
While her tribe’s proposed multifaceted casinos on approximately 200 acres in all three communities, she said the tribe’s priority is “what is the best fit.”
Andrews-Maltais, joined by other tribal representatives, spoke at length about developing the land for a hotel, casino resort, housing, recreation, health care services and other amenities for tourism and for tribal members.
She declined to give any figures on project costs, jobs or even investors, other than to say, “We have several options as partners.”
Three-fourths of her tribe of about 1,000 members live off an ancestral site on Martha’s Vineyard, in southeastern Massachusetts and nearby areas, she said.
The chairwoman said she grew up in Dartmouth, continues to live in New Bedford and also bought a home on the island 14 years ago.
She said the Aquinnahs have held talks with Hasenjaeger about buying the land since 2006.
She was aware area residents and others are mobilized to oppose their casino.
“We’re hoping they would keep an open mind,” she said.
No decisions were made at the hourlong meeting on when a required city referendum to approve a casino resort would be held in Fall River and how the tribe might pay for those costs.
That decision could be a couple of weeks off, officials said.
“I do expect a referendum to take place in Fall River,” said Mayor Will Flanagan, who after the meeting raised prospects of multiple referendum questions on sites also proposed by commercial developers. They could include casino projects along the waterfront or in the Industrial Park.
Andrews-Maltais said she’ll be speaking with tribal leaders to consider “splitting the cost” of a special election, which Flanagan estimated will cost more than $50,000.
Flanagan said he’d seek a share of special election costs from commercial developers who he expects to announce casino plans “in the next two or three weeks.”
On the one hand, Flanagan told a small media group outside his office, “The Aquinnah are viable under the state gaming law. … They have a right to compete under the gaming bill.”
That state legislation gives federally recognized tribes priority for a regional gaming license until July 31.
While he praised the Aquinnahs and called the meeting “positive,” Flanagan also said a few times, “I want to emphasize this is not the only proposal in Fall River.” The others are commercial developers, he said.
While the tribes are in competition, Andrews-Maltais said she’s spoken with Mashpees Chairman Cederic Cromwell and, “Cedric and I are mutually supportive of each other’s right to gaming.”
The Mashpees had submitted a letter to Patrick to enter negotiations for a compact that must be approved by the governor and Legislature.
Among city officials participating in Friday’s meeting were city
councilors Linda Pereira and Raymond Mitchell, Corporation Counsel Steven Torres and Kenneth Fiola Jr. of the Fall River Office of Economic Development.
Fiola said a key question he sees is “what the governor will do now that he has two American Indian tribes expressing interest in a casino. I think a lot of eyes are going to be watching these next few steps,” Fiola said.
Flanagan said he expected to have another meeting with Aquinnah leaders “in about two weeks.”
Mitchell said the City Council needs to discuss the information given to decide whether to set a referendum.
Flanagan also emphasized, “We will move at our own pace. We’re not competing with Lakeville or Freetown,” he said. “We’re not concerned with what the other towns or cities are doing.”
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