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State gets tough on tribal casino

Will demand refund on Route 24 upgrades

By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / May 19, 2010

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Governor Deval Patrick’s administration, taking a hard line on the proposed tribal casino in Fall River, said yesterday it will demand repayment of nearly $35 million in taxpayer funds for a highway ramp off Route 24 if the city builds a gaming complex there instead of a long-planned biotechnology park.

The ultimatum reveals the administration’s dissatisfaction with Fall River officials, who over the past several years persuaded the state to invest more than $50 million in road improvements and other upgrades for a planned “BioPark’’ — only to see those city officials on Monday instead endorse construction of a casino on the site.

Patrick’s top economic aide, Gregory Bialecki, said his office was not briefed on the casino proposal before the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe unveiled it.

“If it turns out this parcel is going to be developed as a casino, we expect to be repaid for any public dollars spent on the infrastructure,’’ Bialecki said. He said the admin istration was not angered by the casino proposal, but that it believes developers should pay for upgrades to support construction of gaming facilities, not the public. Construction of the ramp is underway.

Meanwhile, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth chancellor Jean MacCormack released a letter in which the school indicated it would pull a proposed biotechnology research facility that was also slated for the BioPark site. The state had already committed to spending $15 million for the facility, as well as another $2 million in road upgrades to support it.

“The City’s decision to abandon development of a BioPark in favor of a resort casino profoundly affects the university’s decision-making about a suitable location for our facility,’’ the UMass letter said. “Any delay in starting the project triggers a risk that state funding might be rescinded, so timing is important.’’

Fall River Mayor William A. Flanagan, who gave a strong endorsement of the casino plan yesterday, did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment yesterday.

When asked if the tribe would reimburse the state the $35 million for the highway ramp, a Wampanoag spokesman would say only that the ramp would benefit other property owners in Fall River, not just the casino.

By aggressively pitching the casino plan without first vetting it with the Patrick administration, Flanagan and the tribe appear to have dealt their casino plans a setback.

Under development for 10 years, the BioPark was to become a center of private investment in Fall River, a former textile manufacturing hub struggling with extreme unemployment. The ambitious proposal was the basis for the Patrick administration’s decision last year to grant $34.7 million in state funds and federal stimulus money for the Route 24 off-ramp to the 300-acre property where the park is planned.

Bialecki said yesterday the state will complete the ramp because it will in general support development in the area. But he said the administration wants to follow the lead of other states with legalized gambling that require casino developers to foot the bill for roads and other infrastructure.

“That was the clear expectation the governor set forth in his previous bill, and we think that’s the right way to think about it,’’ Bialecki said, referring to legislation Patrick filed in 2007 to legalize casinos.

“In licensing these facilities, the state is looking at a number of ways to create revenue. It’s not peoples’ expectation that the money would then be put back out to pay for the infrastructure,’’ he said.

In a related matter, Bialecki told a reporter for the State House New Service yesterday that he would examine whether the state should also seek reimbursement for a $47 million parking garage it is building in Revere that could benefit the development of a casino at Suffolk Downs.

The Massachusetts House of Representatives has approved legislation to license two casinos in the state and legalize slot machines at the state’s four racetracks. The Senate is now writing its own version of the legislation, which also needs Patrick’s approval. So far, developers have proposed building casinos in Milford, Palmer, New Bedford, and at Suffolk Downs in East Boston.

The Wampanoag’s proposed Fall River casino would cost $500 million and include three hotels, a shopping mall, a water park, and cinema. The tribe, which abandoned a location in Middleborough for Fall River, said the complex would create thousands of jobs for area residents and uplift a hard-hit community.

However, several state legislators have said they would prefer to see development of the BioPark. Furthermore, in conveying the land for the BioPark to Fall River in 2002, the state put in place a restriction that would prevent its use for a casino development. The restriction can only be overturned by an act of the state Legislature.

A spokesman for the tribe, Joe Ganley, acknowledged the restriction is one of “several legal hurdles’’ the tribe must clear to advance its proposal, but he said those issues will not stop the project.

“We are confident that if the city of Fall River wants to develop a casino on the site, the restriction will be lifted,’’ he said.

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.