AQUINNAH, Mass. — On the western tip of Martha’s Vineyard, bright clay cliffs and a red brick lighthouse draw visitors as they pile out of cars and tour buses and head up to this town’s scenic overlook.
But the leaders of the Aquinnah Wampanoags, the federally recognized American Indian tribe whose ancestors first inhabited the island, envision a new destination.
They’ve proposed transforming an unfinished tribal community center a few miles inland into a high-stakes bingo and poker hall filled with electronic betting machines.
The idea horrifies some long-term visitors, residents and even tribal members, who see it as incongruous with the quaint towns and soft sand beaches that have made the island off Cape Cod a preferred getaway for celebrities and other wealthy elites, including President Barack Obama and his family.
“Theft, vandalism, drugs, alcohol, you name it,” said Town Selectwoman Julianne Vanderhoop, a tribal member who owns a bakery near the proposed site, ticking off the list of unwelcome “elements” she said gambling brings.
“There are a lot of things that are wrong for the island,” she said. “This is certainly one of them.”
At the same time, opponents acknowledge the tribe needs a sustainable cash flow.
“It just seems like an unfortunate way of making an income,” Eugene Goldfield, who owns a photo gallery on the island, said as he joined family and friends at the cliff overlook late one afternoon. “But I’m really sympathetic to tribal rights. They really got screwed over the years.”
Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of tribe’s gaming corporation, said the proposal represents the best chance for the tribe to tap into the tourist dollars that flow into the island each summer.
“I’m not saying people are going to be coming to Martha’s Vineyard just because they want to game,” she said as she gave a reporter a tour of the tribe’s lands recently. “But what else are you going to do, once you’ve been to the beaches, the restaurants, the golf courses and the one movie theater? When you think about it, it’s something new, something different.”
Tim Terry, a New Jersey resident visiting the Aquinnah cliffs on his first trip to the island, agreed.
“It’d be a change of pace,” he said. “You come out here and you don’t expect something like that. … Maybe it brings more of a nightlife.”
The project faces significant challenges before it can become reality.
Gov. Deval Patrick is trying to block it, arguing in a federal lawsuit that the tribe forfeited its rights to open a casino when it reached a settlement in 1983 for the 485 acres it owns in Aquinnah.
Andrews-Maltais is confident the tribe will prevail and said it continues to seek investors for the estimated $10 million initial cost.
The plan, she said, is about bringing “economic self-sufficiency” to a roughly 1,200-member tribe that is “totally reliant” on federal subsidies and grants to provide services.
The tribe is not saying how much revenue it believes the casino – which will not offer traditional slot machines or casino tables games like blackjack and roulette – could generate.
The Aquinnah Wampanoags received federal recognition in 1987 but trace their lineage to the inhabitants of the region some 10,000 years ago, whose legends hold that a giant created the island and taught their people to fish and catch whales.
Only about a quarter of the tribe’s members live on Martha’s Vineyard. Most live on the mainland.
Of those on Martha’s Vineyard, a number live in Aquinnah, where the median price for a single-family house is around $655,000, according to the Warren Group, which tracks real estate sales data throughout New England.
Many tribal members struggle, like other full-time islanders, to secure steady jobs and affordable housing, Andrews-Maltais said.
The tribe offers only about 30 units of subsidized housing on its lands, and few can afford to own property outright in Aquinnah or other communities “up-island.”
Other members question how profitable the casino could be, and wonder how it will attract customers during the two-thirds of the year when the western part of the island all but shuts down.