Mashpee Wampanoag remain optimistic, but uncertainty still hangs over casino plans

Uncertainty continues to linger over the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe's efforts to open a resort casino in the southeastern Massachusetts city of Taunton.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs sent a letter to Taunton officials last month seeking comments on a plan to deem lands held in trust for the tribe as reservation land, a move that tribal leaders have touted as a sign a decision is imminent. The designation is necessary for the federally recognized, Cape Cod-based tribe to open a casino on sovereign Indian land without state approval.

But Mass Gaming and Entertainment, a rival company hoping to open a casino in nearby Brockton, says the outcome is still far from certain. It argues that even if the decision falls favorably to the tribe, it would likely be bogged down in litigation.

The federal agency has also made it clear in a follow-up letter to Taunton that it's only seeking comments and has not set a date for a decision.

Mass Gaming, in response, has asked the state Gaming Commission to commit to awarding the state's third and final resort casino license — regardless of what happens with the tribe's casino plans.

Neil Bluhm, chairman of Rush Street Gaming, the Chicago-based parent company of Mass Gaming, said in a statement this week that he does not believe applicants should have to continue to commit time and resources if the commission has no intention of issuing a license.

"We should not be held in limbo if the commission cannot give us some certainty that a qualified applicant, which we believe we are, will not be denied the Region C license because of the uncertainty of a potential tribal casino," he said, referring to the designation for the resort license reserved for the southeastern corner of the state.

Mass Gaming is the only company still seeking the Region C license. The state has already issued two other resort casino licenses: one to MGM for a Springfield project and another to casino magnate Steve Wynn for a Boston-area casino. It has also issued a slots parlor license to Plainridge Park Casino in Plainville.

Brockton-area businesses have voiced their support for Mass Gaming's request in letters to the gaming commission, which has been taking public comment on the company's request this month. The commission is expected to discuss the request on Thursday.

"It will be an economic anchor for Brockton, bringing new life to existing small businesses like mine and fostering the creation of other economic development in the city," Dan Evans, owner of Evans Machine Co, a longtime Brockton manufacturer, said of the $650 million casino plan.

But Penn National Gaming, which owns Plainridge Park, has voiced opposition, noting that the prospect of a tribe-run casino and a private casino in close proximity has negative financial consequences to the state.

Under the state's compact with the tribe, it would claim 17 percent of the tribal casino's gross gambling revenues but zero if another casino was allowed to open in the region.

"There is no reason to rush to judgment about whether the Mashpee land will be taken into trust," Penn National Gaming said in a Friday letter to the commission. "The commission repeatedly has informed applicants that it is under no obligation to issue a license in any region, including Region C."