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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Many obstacles to a Charlestown Indian casino

Ten reasons why a Charlestown casino isn't going to happen
By Will Collette

As I predicted, the Charlestown Citizens Alliance has sounded the alarm that the Narragansett Indian Tribe wants to build a full-scale resort casino in Charlestown. They sent out an e-bleat on Tuesday warning Charlietowners that Armageddon in the form of a casino in Charlestown is coming when the Senate votes on the “Carcieri Fix.” (Click here to read my earlier article that explains what the Carcieri fix is.)
This is a screen shot of the CCA's proposed e-mail text

The CCA wants you to send an e-mail to the RI Congressional delegation and the Governor. See the text of the message they want you to send (left).

It’s a bad e-mail message, not only because of the bad grammar, but also because it isn’t true. The “Carcieri Fix” does not “allow tribal gambling in Charlestown” and does not “otherwise supersede the RI Indian Land Claims Settlement Act.”

The “Carcieri fix” resolves a problem in the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. According to the US Supreme Court in their 2009 Carcieri v. Salazar decision, Congress was not clear about the rights of Indian tribes that, like the Narragansetts, gained federal recognition after the 1934 law was passed.

What the Carcieri fix states is that Congress intended the 1934 law should apply equally to all federally recognized Indian tribes. Most people - outside of Charlestown - view the Carcieri fix as a civil rights issue, as a matter of ensuring equal protection under law. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in the language of the Carcieri fix that says anything about a Charlestown casino. 

The proposed fix does not supersede the 1978 Joint Memorandum of Understanding the Narragansetts signed with the state of Rhode Island and Charlestown where the tribe agreed that the 1800 acres they received as a settlement would be subject to state and local law.

The Carcieri v. Salazar case originated in a lawsuit by Charlestown against the Interior Department to prevent the tribe from placing an additional 31 acres – not part of the lands covered by the settlement MOU – in trust with the Interior Department for the purpose of building a senior citizens affordable housing development.

A Carcieri fix would allow the tribe to go ahead with its plans for those 31 acres. It does not, as the CCA claims, “allow tribal gambling in Charlestown” unless the seniors decide to play gin rummy for money. What it does is remove one of many very formidable barriers to any such tribal gaming operation. Just one.

Here are ten additional hurdles the tribe would have to overcome.
  1. Capital. Where will the tribe come up with at least half a billion dollars? That’s roughly the cost of building a competitive gaming operation. I base this on the costs incurred by Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun when they built add-ons to their already huge facilities in nearby Connecticut. The Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegans took on these projects before the recession hit and caused their businesses to suffer severe financial distress. They’d have a hard time finding that kind of capital today, even with their well-established going operations. How would a late entry like the Narragansetts come up with that kind of money?
  2. Land. The Tribe’s existing 1800 acres is tied up under the terms of the Joint MOU so, to build a casino, the Tribe would need either the state’s and town’s permission – which ain’t gonna happen – or to find more land. How much land do they need? Mohegan Sun uses 240 acres. Foxwoods uses most of the tribe’s 1250 acres. The proposed Indian casino in Taunton would be sited on 145 acres right next to the highway. Those 31 acres owned by the Narragansetts aren't enough. Now, if you added Larry LeBlanc’s nearby 81 acres, the site of his proposed industrial wind farm, you start to get in the ball park….
  3. Competition. There are seven existing or proposed major gaming establishments within 100 miles of Charlestown. The biggest, indeed, the largest in the entire Western Hemisphere, Foxwoods, is just over the border in Connecticut, with Mohegan Sun just a little further beyond. Twin River in Lincoln will be expanded to become a full-scale casino by the end of 2013. The Newport Grand slot parlor will probably continue as such for a while. There are three full-scale casinos and one slot parlor authorized in Massachusetts. The Indian casino for Taunton is nearing the final stages of approval. That makes a Charlestown Indian casino a very late arrival in an already saturated market.
  4. Water. Simply put, there isn’t enough underground water to supply the needs of a major gaming facility, so part of the development of this project will be providing an alternative water supply from somewhere. How likely do you think it is that Charlestown would approve a pipeline to bring water in from off the site?
  5. Sewage. This is a hurdle similar to the water problem. It would take one humungous septic system to handle such a facility’s wastewater. Instead, the tribe would probably have to build its own wastewater treatment plant roughly similar in size, type and scope to those that have been built by towns on Cape Cod. These plants cost in the range of $65 million to $75 million each. Then there’s the question of where the treated effluent would go. Again, how likely do you think it is that Charlestown would approve a pipeline that takes effluent off the site?
  6. Permits. What makes the water and sewage issues major obstacles is the obligation the tribe will have to obey federal laws. While a Carcieri fix might allow the tribe to place new land under federal trust – and out from under the jurisdiction of state and Charlestown's very stringent anti-development  laws – federal Clean Air, Clean Water, solid waste and wastewater disposal laws still apply.
  7. Transportation. Better access to I-95 will be needed, probably by widening Route 78 to at least two, if not three, lanes. Problem: Part of 78 runs through Connecticut, which stands to lose revenue if there is a Charlestown casino (that exit off of I-95 is also one of the closest to Foxwoods). Plus, RI has more serious priorities for its highway money, such as fixing 157 “structurally deficient,” dangerous bridges. And the state doesn’t have enough money even for that. 
  8. Community opposition. It is very difficult, even for the rich and powerful, to build locally undesirable land uses (LULUs) in the face of overwhelming community opposition. Just ask Patriot’s owner Bob Kraft, who had to drop his plans to add a gaming operation to his New England Patriots complex in Foxboro due to overwhelming opposition from the community. If the Narragansetts really got serious about a gaming operation in Charlestown, just about everyone in the community – including me – would rise up against it.
  9. Internal divisions. Although the Tribal leadership supports gaming (though not necessarily in Charlestown) as a potential revenue source, the Narragansetts are far from united in support of gambling. If Tribal leaders seriously moved toward a gaming facility on sacred tribal lands here in Charlestown, the simmering divisions within the Tribe would boil up. At other Indian casinos, members are often won over by the prospect of a share of the revenue. However, as the Westerly Sun just recently reported, Foxwoods had to suspend payments to tribal members, forcing some of them to try to get jobs working at the casino.
  10. Charlie Vandemoer. Our local federal overseer has had a history of intervening in town political matters that pose far less of a threat to the wildlife under the protection of the US Fish and Wildlife Service than a full-scale tribal casino would. The Fish and Wildlife Service holds considerable regulatory power to veto projects that threaten wildlife, especially migratory birds, and has used that power to kill projects in the past. Here we are, right on the major skyway route for migratory birds traveling from the Arctic to the tropics, and a casino project would be in close proximity to a National Wildlife Refuge. If we learned nothing from this year’s Battle of Ninigret Park, it’s that Charlie can and will intervene. Rather than being an unnecessary disruption as it was before, Charlie’s intervention in any casino battle would be welcome and could be Charlestown’s decisive ace in the hole.
If all else fails, I'm sure Charlie Vandemoer would kill any
So even if the Carcieri fix does, somehow, manage to get enacted into law, there are still many even more formidable obstacles facing the Narragansetts – who, by the way, have not actually said they want to build a casino in Charlestown since they were rejected twenty years ago (they have, in fact, sought to get a casino in other more practical sites in Rhode Island). 

This whole thing about a tribal casino in Charlestown is largely a concocted political bogeyman the CCA and the RI Statewide Coalition have been using to scare town residents for years.

Incidentally, Indian Country Today reports that the Senate vote on the Carcieri Fix has been delayed indefinitely. According to the article, the measure lacks the support of 16 Senate Democrats and is well short of the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate in Congress’s current lame-duck session. Watch for the CCA’s congratulatory “thanks to your emails” victory lap e-bleat coming to your inbox any minute now.