Alex Morse’s brazen casino reversal

It makes John Kerry look like a piker.  Even the CEO of shameless shape-shifting, Mitt Romney, might have blushed while trying to pull this one off.

Alex Morse, the boy wonder mayor of Holyoke who rode into office a year ago on a platform vowing steadfast opposition to a casino in his city, is now ready to roll the dice. Morse announced this morning that he’s reversing course and is open to a proposal by local developer Eric Suher to site a casino at an outdoor concert site on the side of Mt. Tom.  

The stunning reversal landed on the front-page of yesterday’s Boston Globe, and it has landed the 23-year-old Morse in hot water with some of his most ardent supporters, who interrupted his announcement this morning at Holyoke City Hall with anti-casino chants. The Springfield Republican website showed a photograph of someone holding a Morse for Mayor sign with a big black “x” drawn through it.

When he ran for mayor last year against a one-term incumbent, Morse was highly critical of casino plan put forth by developer Hard Rock International for a resort casino on the site of country club on the outskirts of Holyoke. Not only did Morse advance a wide-ranging argument against the economics of casinos, he said the Hard Rock location would drain the life out of downtown Holyoke and hurt efforts to revive the city’s core business district. The site now being proposed by Suher is a stone’s throw from the Hard Rock location.

Plenty of questions — including in this 2007 CommonWealth article by Globe investigative reporter Sean Murphy — have been raised about Suher’s would-be partner, Len Wolman, a Connecticut casino developer who was part of the busted effort to bring a tribal casino to Middleborough.

Morse’s announcement comes on the heels of the release last month of CommonWealth’s fall issue, which includes an Argument & Counterpoint feature in which Morse argues against the idea of bringing a casino to his city, while Mayor Domenic Sarno of neighboring Springfield, argues that a casino would be a great economic shot in the arm to his city. “A casino in Holyoke,” Morse wrote, “would not aid in our economic rebirth, but would ultimately undermine the effort.”

In this CommonWealth profile of Morse following his election one year ago, he painted a prospects of a casino in the harshest of lights, and suggested that that Holyoke faced a stark choice between sustainable economic development and the fools’ gold of casinos, which prey on vulnerable seniors and the poor.

From the CommonWealth story:

[Morse] emphasized the importance of reviving downtown Holyoke, a place where there are fresh stirrings of life with artists and other newcomers moving into the downtown warren of mills. He talked about luring new tech-based businesses by trumpeting the skill pipeline of 100,000 college students in the corridor between neighboring North­ampton and Amherst and Hartford, Con­necticut. And he talked about a long-term vision for the city that includes dramatic achievement gains in its school system, one of the lowest-performing in the state, so that residents can compete for jobs in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. A casino, he said, is exactly what Holyoke doesn’t need.

“I’ll do whatever I can to keep it out of here,” Morse says of the casino proposal. “I think it’s bad economic policy. I think it’s an act of desperation for the state and for the city of Holyoke. It doesn’t alleviate poverty, it adds to poverty. It’s going to jeopardize any efforts to revitalize and bring people to downtown Holyoke. It earns money on the backs of the poor and the senior citizens. People have less money in their pockets, and they’re spending it at the casinos rather than on businesses in the city.”

“We’re on the verge,” he says. “We can choose to have a casino economy or aim for something better.

Hardly the words of someone ambivalent about the effects of a casino. And they are a view shared by noted urban thinker Richard Florida, who just this morning penned a column for the New York Daily News titled “Gambling away our cities.”

If Holyoke wins the one Western Mass. casino location, which could be a longshot with the groundwork that’s already been laid for a casino in Springfield, Morse will have to make it work for Holyoke residents and the city’s rebirth. If Holyoke loses out, Morse is left with nothing to show for his efforts other than disgruntled casino opponents who were key to his election.  If he’s still in office when a decision is made. After all his opposition to casinos, Morse has become the biggest gambler of all. 

                                                                                                    –MICHAEL JONAS

BEACON HILL

State tax revenues are down, which means cuts could be coming soon, the Globe reports.

Lt. Gov. Tim Murray confessed just before Thanksgiving that he does indeed harbor gubernatorial ambitions. Joan Vennochi promptly deems it a turkey of an idea.

Rep. James Lyons, a Republican from Andover, says he has filed legislation to prevent state benefits from being paid to illegal immigrants, the Eagle-Tribune reports.

The state Republican Party looks divided between outgoing Sen. Scott Brown and Charlie Baker — the two have to figure out who’s potentially running for which office.

The MetroWest Daily News wants state and federal officials to get out of the way of implementing new laws to regulate the sales of medical marijuana in the Bay State and the legalization of the drug in Colorado and Washington state.

Tim Cahill could testify this week as his trial on fraud and corruption charges resumes. Adrian Walker is scratching his head over the decision to charge Cahill with crimes — and over Cahill’s harebrained idea of running for governor, which set the whole mess in motion.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Municipalities across the country are seeing the number of tax-exempt properties rise, a phenomenon that is shrinking the tax base, Governing reports. In Boston, tax-exempt property represents 29.3 percent of the total, up from 24.9 percent five years ago.

A Dracut lawyer with sex-offender clients complains about day care operation moving into his building, the Lowell Sun reports.

A natural gas explosion that injured 18 people and damaged 42 buildings in Springfield was caused by a utility workers who accidentally punctured a high-pressure pipeline while looking for a leak, the Associated Press reports (via WBUR).

Leominster’s city council continues to dog its mayor over his State Ethics Commission violation.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

The White House tries mobilizing its election supporters on taxes. Paul Krugman takes on deficit hawks.

The Springfield Republican decries the maneuvering to keep senator-elect Elizabeth Warren off the Senate Banking Committee.

Key Republican senators pretty much tell Grover Norquist to read their lips on possible tax increases.

ELECTION 2012

The new demographics of black and white voters pose problems for Republicans in the South.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Americans spent $59 billion over the holiday weekend, NECN reports. Meanwhile, Americans are at risk on Cyber Monday from criminals who do their dirty work online.

The National Review writes about the Great American Mismatch — plenty of manufacturing jobs but too few people with the necessary skills. The current issue of CommonWealth features a
Conversation interview with Northeastern University’s Barry Bluestone and AccuRounds CEO Michael Tamasi and the promise of the Massachusetts manufacturing sector. They, too, however, highlight a shortage of skilled workers as the biggest challenge.

Downtown Boston is booming with commercial and residential projects, the Globe reports.

EDUCATION

Former Brockton mayor John Yunits is making a bid to open the city’s first charter school, which would be run by SABIS Educational Systems Inc., the Enterprise reports.

Anti-Semitic graffiti hits Wheaton College in Norton.

TRANSPORTATION

A ferry operating between Salem and Boston sees a dramatic drop in ridership, the Salem News reports.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Northeast state wrangle over the carbon emissions cap that is part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the Gloucester Times reports.

“What if Sandy Happened Here” was the focus of a forum yesterday at Boston’s Faneuil Hall.

The Berkshire Eagle supports continuing the Solarize Massachusetts program which allows residents and businesses to install solar panels and sell unused power back to the grid.

MEDIA

Al White, the editor of the Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, hangs up on Christian Science Monitor correspondent Jessica Bruder, Media Nation reports.

“Gangnam Style” becomes most viewed YouTube video with more than 800 million views, NECN reports.