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Rural Massachusetts town fears impact of possible casino 5-5-07

By KEN MAGUIRE
MIDDLEBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) - Jim Reynolds watches his neighbor's Clydesdales across his stone wall during his morning coffee. The geese fly so low over his house that “I can hear them hissing.”

The fifth-generation Middleborough resident says this is not the proper place for a casino, arguing that traffic, drunk drivers, and 24-hour flood lights over massive parking lots would supplant the rural appeal of his hometown.

“I fear this is going to be enormous,” said Reynolds, 44. “I find it distressing.”

It's a sentiment echoed by others in this southeastern Massachusetts town, where investors of the Mashpee Wampanoag Indians have agreed to buy 325 acres for a possible casino site.

Middleborough, the second-largest town in the state by area, is about 40 miles south of Boston. The town of 20,000 residents is home to cranberry growers, farmers, and an increasing number of professional couples.

“Most people don't know the name Ledyard, (Conn.), but they know the name Foxwoods,” said Reynolds, who runs a flower shop a quarter-mile from where the tribe bought land. “I don't know what town Mohegan Sun is in, but I know Mohegan Sun. Pretty soon I don't think anyone is going to know the name Middleborough.”

Town officials - facing budget shortfalls and possible layoffs - reached out to the Mashpee Wampanoags in recent months, as did the city of New Bedford, as it became clear that the Wampanoags would win federal recognition as a tribe. The federal status becomes official May 23.

Tribal leaders want Gov. Deval Patrick and Beacon Hill lawmakers to pass legislation allowing them to build a casino. Even without legislative approval, federal recognition gives the tribe the right to operate bingo parlors within 50 miles of its tribal home on Cape Cod.

Tribal council chairman Glenn Marshall said a casino is “absolutely” the goal, but that a golf course, theme park and restaurants also are in the works, all part of a resort destination similar to Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn.

“Whatever we do will be done with the utmost care to the environment,” Marshall said. “I don't believe (Middleborough) is going to lose its beauty. There will be a bit of increased traffic but it's not going to be like Gillette Stadium on a Sunday afternoon football game.

“A casino is open 24 hours, seven days a week,” he continued, “so people will be filtering out on a regular basis.”

The tribe's main investor, Detroit casino developer Herb Strather, agreed last Friday to buy the 125 acres from the town for $1.76 million. The tribe this week bought an option, from a private owner, for 200 adjacent acres in the woods off Route 44, which is near Interstate 495.

Marshall says he's still shopping.

“If a piece of property came up tomorrow, for the right price, we'd buy it or at least option it,” he said. “You never have enough acreage.”

Some neighbors see opportunities for the town and themselves.

“If the price was right, I'd sell,” said Bernice Matckie, who lives on two acres between Precinct Street and Route 44 in the same tract of land where the tribe bought.

A casino would bring jobs to local people, she said, although she cautioned that friends who work at the Connecticut casinos make just $8 per hour.

A half-mile away, retired Elden Stuart, whom neighbors call the “mayor of Precinct Street,” says he'd sell his seven acres, as long as the bidding starts at $400,000.

“I'll sell it to anybody who gives me an offer,” the 88-year-old said.

Stuart has lived on Precinct Street for the past 60 years, and has seen single-family homes crop up. He figures more development is inevitable.

“They already own the land. They bought it,” he said. “You just have to put up with it.”

Middleborough Town Manager John Healey said the public reaction he's heard is split. He dismissed some neighbors' claims that they were in the dark on the town's plans.

“We talked about it for months at selectmen's meetings,” he said, adding that they mailed abutters notification of the town auction and advertised the auction in the local newspaper.

An agreement with the tribe could help pay for police, fire, and schools, he said. The school department's budget, for example, is more than $2 million short, meaning possible layoffs.

“If this would help in that situation and we could plan out all the negative potential impacts ... and it was pretty much a self-contained entity, it might be positive,” he said.

There are 420 American Indian casinos nationwide. Gambling revenue at Indian casinos grew to nearly $23 billion in 2005, climbing at a rate more than three times faster than traditional gambling operations, according to the Indian Gaming Industry Report, compiled by economist Alan Meister with the Analysis Group in Los Angeles. It was the 10th consecutive year in which revenues increased by about 15 percent.

Connecticut receives about $200 million each year from slot machine revenue at each of the state's two casinos, Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun, under agreements with the tribes. The money is used for education, aid to cities and towns, and other purposes.

In Massachusetts, Patrick has a task force examining whether to support an expansion of legal gambling beyond the Massachusetts Lottery and the state's four racetracks. He expects a report by the end of the summer.

Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, has indicated she's supportive of an expansion, but House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, D-Boston, has spoken against it.

The tribe has stepped up its lobbying at the Statehouse - both professionally and personally. Marshall, the tribal chairman, made personal visits last week to top legislative leaders, including DiMasi.

“He wanted to understand Indian gaming,” Marshall said. “He did not commit one way or another.”

DiMasi said he's concerned about social costs, as well as the negative impact a casino would have on the state Lottery, which redistributes much of its revenues to cities and towns.

“It may not be this panacea. It may not get the revenues you think,” he said.

DiMasi stopped short of opposing it outright, saying he'll wait to see Patrick's task force findings.

Back at Nathan's Place in downtown Middleborough, manager Sue Glendye doesn't need a task force report before making her decision.

“It's right down the street from my house and I don't want it,” she said. “I have three kids. I don't want them growing up with a casino in the neighborhood.”
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