MIDDLEBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – The Puritans who founded this rural town three centuries ago would probably recognize their old style of noisy democracy at a massive town meeting that approved a casino deal with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe Saturday.
Of course, those die-hard fundamentalists might be unnerved by the result.
Almost two-thirds of voters who gathered on a hot, dusty baseball field cast ballots supporting an agreement with the Wampanoag tribe to build a $1 billion casino.
Residents voted 2,387-1,335 in favor of a deal that includes $250 million in infrastructure improvements and up to $11 million in annual payments for a cash-strapped town, among other benefits.
Despite the vote, significant hurdles remain before the state’s first casino can be built, including federal and state approval. Gov. Deval Patrick, who commissioned a task force to study expanded gambling, has also not said if he would support the proposed casino.
Still, the Wampanoag leadership viewed the support of its host community as a victory.
“It’s historic times for the town and the tribe together,” said Glenn Marshall, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribal council. He watched as town leaders signed the casino agreement moments after the tally was announced. “It’s over now,” he said.
Saturday’s vote was a modern and massive spin on an old political ritual: the New England town meeting.
To decide the issue, almost 4,000 residents here lugged lawn chairs, water bottles and signs to a high school baseball field. They cheered and booed during the three-hour debate, uninterrupted by light rain and 84-degree heat. Medics took at least one exhausted woman off the field.
Supporters called the casino proposal an unparalleled chance to raise millions for the town and provide jobs. Opponents worried the financial details were uncertain and argued that a casino could bring crime and social ills like alcoholism and compulsive gambling.
A sense of resignation that a casino was a done deal drove the decisions of several voters.
Michelle Holden, 45, planned to reluctantly vote for a casino deal she called inevitable. Regardless of Saturday’s vote, the tribe controls the necessary land and can build so long as it secures federal and state approval, she said.
If nothing else, Holden hoped the extra revenue could help the town restore services it previously cut, like freshman sports. She has a 16-year-old son in high school.
“I don’t really want the casinos here, but it’s coming,” she said. “We might as well benefit through the town.”
Russ Burns, 67, said the Wampanoag’s deserve a casino because they’ve suffered for centuries. Before the colonial era, the tribe thrived along the Nemasket River, which winds through the countryside.
The tribe’s presence dwindled after the King Philip’s War, a 17th century conflict that pitted the allies of a Wampanoag chief against colonial authorities across New England. Middleborough was raided during the conflict. A downtown sign once marked the approximate spot where a Puritan militiaman shot dead an unarmed Indian.
“We took everything,” said Burns, who’s white. “Now they want to make a couple of dollars. We’re going to say you can’t do that either?”
During the debate, William Marzelli called the casino a no-brainer. With more revenue, the town could reduce fees students pay to play sports, keep the library open longer and open a fire station. Even if voters rejected the deal, it might prove impossible to negotiate a better one.
“Get real,” he said. “Let’s take the deal on the table.”
Another voter, Pat Harnett, 52, said she intended to support the casino proposal until driving to Connecticut on Friday to speak with about a dozen people who live and work near the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods tribal casinos.
One woman told Harnett that casino traffic prevented her from easily backing out of her own driveway, Harnett said. A waitress spoke about a gambling addiction that wrecked her marriage. Others warned that casinos bring jobs, but not always for local residents.
“It’s just too rushed,” Harnett said.