The newest development proposal on the table — a $1 billion resort casino run by the Mashpee Wampanoags — would make the town a center for tourism and entertainment.
In this semi-rural town, the seasons can be measured by the color of cranberry bogs, the tractors hauling bales of hay and the deer and turkeys wandering into traffic on tree-canopied country lanes.
Growth can be measured by the high-tech industries, manufacturing facilities and corporate headquarters that have mushroomed off Interstate 495 in recent years.
Now, the newest development proposal on the table — a $1 billion resort casino run by the Mashpee Wampanoags — would make the town a center for tourism and entertainment.
The tribe's plan to open a casino off Route 44 in north Middleboro has drawn the ire of some and applause from others. Many fear the town as they know it will lose its rural character.
During planning sessions in 2000, many residents expressed their desire for the town to retain its rural flavor. They wanted the village centers to be saved, the stone walls preserved and open space protected.
Selectman Adam M. Bond contends that Middleboro will change whether or not a casino comes to town, and there would be a “more positive than negative” impact if the tribe opens a casino.
“Middleboro will be gaining some economic independence,” he said, referring to the deal struck last summer with the tribe that would add millions to the town's coffers.
But opponents say the casino would be the wrong kind of change — bringing traffic, crime and social problems to Middleboro, a town of 22,000 residents.
“It would be a situation where the casino would become the identity of the town,” said Richard Young, president of anti-casino group CasinoFacts and a Middleboro resident.
Industries have come and gone in Middleboro since it was first settled in 1660 by the Pilgrims in a land transaction with the Indians called the Six and Twenty Men's Purchase.
Almost 350 years later, that purchase is being referenced in another transaction — one that returns the land to American Indians through a purchase by casino investors on behalf of the Wampanoag tribe.
The blue-collar town has historically been a mill town, with a shovel shop at Oliver Mill Park and a blast furnace on Fall Brook. The town has manufactured shoes and fire engines, and grown cranberries. It's hosted varnish works, charcoal making and straw mills. Today, Middleboro is also home to high-tech industries such as Computer Measurement Corp., manufacturing of Serta Mattresses, and the corporate headquarters of Christmas Tree Shops.
David M. Mackiewicz, a lieutenant in the Police Department, grew up on the west side of town in a Polish, Italian and Lithuanian neighborhood with its own elementary school and village markets.
Everybody knew each other in the close-knit neighborhood.
“The kids were out until the street lights came on,” Mackiewicz said. “Back then, you could go anywhere. Kids played pick-up football and baseball. You don't see that nowadays.”
Mackiewicz doesn't expect casino traffic or an influx of workers would negatively impact Middleboro “if they build out a limited-access highway.” He said the town has seen a flood of workers in the past, most recently for the shoe mills. Rather, Mackiewicz sees the next wave as “cyclical,” one the town has experienced through the years.
“I think the town is dying without the influx of industry,” Mackiewicz said. “Middleboro has always been a working town, never a bedroom community.”
But the casino may have other effects as well, especially in the schools. The Montville, Conn. schools, near Mohegan Sun, now have 115 English-language learners as opposed to just five in 1999, which Superintendent David B. Erwin attributes to casino workers. The district has hired an ELL coordinator as well as tutors to help Chinese-speaking students in recent years as a result.
Traffic along Route 44 is expected to mushroom, and the road would likely be converted into a four-lane highway if the casino is built.
'Middle of everywhere'
Recently retired town manager John F. Healey always described Middleboro as “in the middle of everywhere.” And now, with the casino debate raging, the town has taken center stage.
At least one family says the casino would be enough to make them move out of town.
“We came here because it was 'country quaint.' It won't be with a casino,” said Sandie Brangan, 38, who lives with her husband and two children on property on Thompson Street, which borders the site of the proposed casino.
“It's really sad,” she said, looking out over the family's two-acre plot. “We have a lot of hopes and dreams for this place.”
Farming is a critical component of the town's rural lifestyle. Here, every year, the 4-H and south Middleboro Grange showcase the industry at agricultural fairs.
Freitas Farm is an annual contender in the state's tomato contest and the Soule Homestead Educational Center hosts Sheep Day/Earth Day each spring. The Unitarian Universalist Society holds a service for the Blessing of the Animals.
Land-wise, the town is the second-largest in the state, at 72.3 square miles. Nearby Plymouth is biggest, at 103 square miles.
In Middleboro, there's room for variety of lifestyles, from the upscale Tanglewood complex to the Oak Point development along with condominiums, apartments, multiple-family homes and traditional single-family dwellings.
Town Planner Ruth M. Geoffroy, who played a key role in casino negotiations with the tribe, says it takes a lot of planning to keep the town rural and protect the lifestyle that many people want to preserve. Middleboro is unusual because people still say hello to each other on the street, she says.
Geoffroy said through the years there has been fear of change, from when Route 25 first went through, and again when the town was connected to Interstate 495 during the 1980s.
There was “big concern” when the Old Colony Commuter Rail line was restored in 1997, bringing train service between South Station in Boston and Middleboro. But Geoffroy said fears of change were never realized.
There has been change since Colonial times, she said, and Middleboro has embraced it and “still kept its identity.”
Now that the gambling industry might come to town, Geoffroy said, there is fear once again that it will dramatically change the town.
But zoning is in place to protect the agricultural character, Geoffroy said. More and more houses are going up, encouraging smaller and smaller lots, which creates both an urban and suburban lifestyle in Middleboro.
“We have enough land. We can accommodate it all,” Geoffroy said.
However, Middleboro is not the only community in this part of the state eyeing a resort casino.
After the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe came to its agreement with Middleboro in July, Gov. Deval Patrick filed a bill to legalize casino gambling and issue licenses for three commercial casinos — one each in the southeastern, western and greater Boston regions of the state.
Raynham Park, the New Bedford waterfront and the Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville are among the possible southeastern Massachusetts sites for a commercial casino.
The governor says the casinos would generate 20,000 jobs and $400 million in annual revenue. The Legislature has not yet scheduled hearings on the measure.
Local officials and casino experts are watching to see how the commercial casino proposal may affect the tribe's plan in Middleboro.
Staff Writer Kyle Alspach contributed to this article.