When Will Massachusetts’ Third Casino Open?
Will there ever be a third casino in Massachusetts? The past decade has seen Massachusetts undergo a conversion from a state that merely dabbles in gambling to an area with full-service casinos. People in the state can now visit offerings from gambling heavyweights like MGM and Wynn, and they can find their favorite slot machines and table games when they do so.
But the intent was always to have three full-service casinos in the state. Since 2011, the story about that third casino has ebbed and flowed. Here are all the details about the unbuilt third resort casino in Massachusetts. We have descriptions of the various efforts to build the property, the bureaucratic headaches that followed, and what possible reasons for hope might exist.
The Expanded Gaming Act of 2011
The 2011 law that gave the Bay State its two resort casinos actually called for three venues. The Expanded Gaming Act divided the state into geographic thirds and dubbed the central section Region A, the western section Region B, and the southeastern section Region C. It allowed for the construction of a resort casino in each zone. Thus, Encore Boston Harbor is the representative for Region A, and MGM Springfield is located in Region B.
Region C, however, remains a question mark. Despite its branding, the Plainridge Park Casino is not, in fact, the third resort casino. The Expanded Gaming Act carved out a fourth permit for a slots casino, and Penn National Gaming operates Plainridge under that allowance. That means residents of southeastern Massachusetts are still waiting for their own resort property.
Where is Region C?
Let’s define exactly what parts of Massachusetts are still waiting on their casino. According to the Expanded Gaming Act of 2011, the counties that form Region C are as follows:
Towns of note in those counties include municipalities such as Brockton, New Bedford, Fall River, Attleboro, Taunton, and Barnstable. Region C also includes areas like Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Altogether, the region is home to roughly 1.3 million residents. Region C is also adjacent to Rhode Island, which lies directly west of most locations in the area.
Timeline of Massachusetts Region C casino
- 2011 – Massachusetts passes the Expanded Gaming Act and allots a casino license for each third of the state. The Mashpees are expected to hold the permit for Region C, the southeastern section of Massachusetts.
- 2015 – The federal government declares 150 acres of land in Mashpee and 170 acres of land in Taunton as the tribe’s reservation and places the land into trust. The decision paves the way for the placement of the casino location. Eventually, the Mashpees announce the new property will be called the First Light Resort & Casino.
- 2016 – Residents of Taunton sue the Department of the Interior on the grounds that the declaration of the land as a reservation violated the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. The court sides with the residents and finds that the Bureau of Indian Affairs (the relevant arm of the Department of the Interior) exceeded its authority.
- 2018 – The Trump administration begins the process to decertify the lands as reservation territory and has the land taken out of trust. The procedure will take more than a year to complete and will have to survive court challenges from the tribe. Meanwhile, MGM Springfield opens as the first legal casino in Massachusetts.
- 2020 – A federal judge blocks the administration’s motion to reverse the tribe’s reservation status, calling the administration’s actions “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and contrary to law.” The administration appeals the verdict. Meanwhile, a second Massachusetts casino, Encore Boston Harbor, opens in 2019.
- 2021 – The Biden administration drops the appeal and allows the Mashpee land to remain a true reservation. Thus, the federal roadblocks against casino development in the Taunton area are gone.
The tribal issue
One of the biggest complications about Region C’s casino is the existence of federally recognized Native American tribes in the area. The two official tribes in the state, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), have both indicated some interest in operating gambling venues on tribal lands. However, both have encountered resistance to their ideas at various levels of the government.
The Mashpees quest to build a casino
The first group, the Mashpees, has been far more dogged in its quest to build the third resort casino. In fact, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe has been slugging it out with the federal government over the sovereign status of its lands and its plans for a gambling facility for years. At the heart of the problem has been some rather inconsistent treatment by the various administrations in DC.
The Mashpees have long sought to build the First Light Resort & Casino on tribal lands near Taunton. Preliminary plans for the $1 billion property include 150,000 square feet of casino space, 3,000 slot machines, 150 table games, and a poker room. The area that the tribe chose, a portion of its 151 acres near the intersection of Routes 24 and 140, would put a resort casino 40 miles south of Boston and only 20 miles east of Providence, Rhode Island.
Unfortunately, the government has gone back and forth about whether the Mashpees’ lands are truly sovereign and eligible for placement into federal trust. The US Department of the Interior and other branches of the federal government have changed their minds about the status of the land in 2015, 2016, and 2018. It wasn’t until a 2021 court ruling that the Mashpees appeared to prevail and put the issue to rest.
At this point, there are no firm plans or timeframe in place for the debut of the property. In fact, given the problems that the Wampanoags in Aquinnah have had with the local government, there’s no guarantee that the Mashpees don’t have a separate round of fights in their future.
The Wampanoags and their electronic bingo casino
The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) is a federally recognized tribe in Massachusetts, but it does not have a negotiated compact with the state itself. The tribe does not have any capacity for or, for that matter, plans to open a full-service resort casino. Instead, the group has only sought to put an electronic bingo casino on its tribal lands near Aquinnah itself.
The problem is that the tribe agreed not to build any gambling locations on the lands when it received the deed in 1987. More recently, a federal appeals court has affirmed that the tribe must gain the approval of the Aquinnah government before it can move forward with its plans.
Unfortunately, the town has not been terribly sympathetic to the concept so far, due to fears about the potentially unsavory element that a gambling facility might attract. So, even though the Wampanoags do have sovereign lands and don’t need a compact with the state to proceed with their plans, they still have some political work to do.
The economic issue
One hidden aspect of the delay on a Region C casino is a general concern over the economic viability of the proposed venue. The other three locations in the state have fallen short of their own predictions for revenue, and there is a feeling that a third full-service casino might further dilute the market. Even if a gambling company with more experience than the Mashpees — such as Caesars or Bally’s — decided to push for the third permit, there is no guarantee that the new facility would not further saturate the Massachusetts market.
The Bay State casinos are not the only consideration, either. Both Rhode Island casinos are easy drives from Region C. In addition, two massive Connecticut casinos are no more than a couple of hours west from many locations in southeastern Massachusetts. Any new gambling facility in the region would need a plan to compete with these established venues, and there might not be enough gambling dollars to go around.
It’s also worth mentioning the role that convenience plays for gamblers. The closest casino location to Boston is Encore Boston Harbor, which is a simple drive across the bridge into Everett. Even the Plainridge Park Casino is equidistant or closer to the largest city in Massachusetts than any third casino would be. Gamblers have to have a significant reason to drive miles farther than their nearest gambling facility.
The same problem might face a Region C casino if it hopes to attract overflow from Rhode Island. The Bally’s facility in Lincoln is roughly the same size and level of opulence as any Massachusetts casino, and Rhode Islanders would have to drive past it or the smaller facility in Tiverton to reach a new casino in the Bay State. It’s not impossible that the First Light or whatever casino appears in southeastern Mass would be able to draw from Rhode Island, but it would probably need to offer something quite special to do so.
There is no news to report about a concrete plan to build a casino in southeastern Massachusetts at this time. The Mashpees appear to have moved their main federal hurdles aside, but they are far from the home stretch with their plans for the First Light Casino. The simple truth is that there may have been too much of a delay to render a third Massachusetts casino viable anymore. However, we will update this page as any new information becomes available.