Any big time casino fans who’ve always dreamt of a casino on Martha’s Vineyard had an exciting start to the week, as tribal leaders who favor the construction of the on-island gambling facility claimed a significant victory at the ballot box in the face of considerable opposition. In recent weeks, opponents of the new casino gathered enough signatures from tribal members to force a special election regarding the repeal of tribal leaders’ vote to open the island casino, but opponents needed a two-thirds majority to block the construction. Luckily for gambling fans, they failed.
With an evenly split vote of 110 to 110, opposition to the casino fell well below the super majority required to overturn the tribal leaders’ decision, which means that the casino will continue on its current course. For some members of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe, the new casino represents a threat to the island’s sacred lands, but the terms of the tribe’s constitution will require a larger opposition movement if construction is to be interrupted. According to a former tribal chairwoman, another referendum to block the casino is possible in one year.
In addition to the issue of sacred lands, a new casino on Martha’s Vineyard presents significant infrastructure issues. In particular, opposing members point to the need to upgrade water and sewer utilities, widen roads, add parking and make other significant changes to the reservation.
As with most things, however, money seems to be doing the talking in this tribal tussle. According to Aquinnah leaders, the tribe could earn nearly $5 million each year from the new casino. Those in favor of the casino have highlighted its operation as the best economic development option available to the tribe. Last month, the tribe announced initial plans to convert a 6,500-square-foot community center into a revitalized gambling hall.
On the plus side, gambling revenue is expected to help fund a variety of important public programs – including elders programs, youth programs, a court system, law enforcement, education, health care, cultural activities, housing, historic preservation and environmental protection.
In-tribe issues come alongside a major battle in federal court over the tribe’s right to operate a casino on the popular vacation island. The tribe’s lawyer argued that the casino falls under a U.S. Supreme Court decision established decades ago that established the rights of tribes to operate casinos on reservation lands. In 1988, Congress enacted a law that outlined these rights in more detail.
Opposing lawyers argue that this deal doesn’t apply to the Aquinnah tribe, which freely gave away the right in a 1983 deal that granted the tribe hundreds of acres of disputed land on the island in exchange for agreeing to never open a casino on the premises.
For the time being, the Martha’s Vineyard casino is still progressing as scheduled despite its considerable opposition from both federal and tribal parties. With a decision on the federal case expected to take “some time” before being rendered, it appears that the arguments about this casino are far from over.