Holyoke mayor drops opposition to casino

Says Springfield proposals forced change


Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse stunned observers by announcing on Monday morning a reversal of his adamant opposition to a casino in his city.  The 23-year-old Morse was elected a year ago on a platform that included staunch opposition to a proposed casino in Holyoke.  As recently as last month, he maintained that public position, authoring this opinion piece for the fall issue of CommonWealth arguing that a casino would do nothing to revitalize Holyoke’s economy and would, in fact, undermine such efforts by siphoning money from the local economy “into the hands of distant owners.”  Morse adopted an equally emphatic anti-casino stance in this CommonWealth profile that appeared last winter. 

Here are his remarks, as prepared for delivery, from a press conference held Monday morning at Holyoke City Hall.

AS MAYOR OF THE CITY OF HOLYOKE, it is my duty to think holistically about our city’s economic revitalization. If a quick fix solution to our economic troubles existed, you all know I would embrace it. However, that is not the world we live in. And the inescapable reality is that Holyoke cannot insulate itself from the economic realities of the surrounding region. A casino in downtown Springfield – especially one that reflects what has so far been proposed – would have a severe impact on our city.

Now, everyone knows I have been strongly opposed to proposals to locate a casino in Holyoke. But when a business plan is presented to me, it is my responsibility to consider it. Regarding Holyoke resident and businessman Eric Suher’s plan for a destination resort casino at Mountain Park, this is all I have done: considered it.

For me, in an ideal world, we would not have a casino within our boundaries. My views on casinos have not changed, and neither has my belief that a casino is unequivocally not our saving grace. The only thing that has changed is my weighing of that option with the alternative, which would be the locating of a box-style casino right at our doorstep. Map out driving directions on your favorite GPS: Springfield’s casino would be fifteen minutes from City Hall; one at Mountain Park would be twelve.  We share one metropolitan area and I cannot assume that our city boundaries will provide us any protection from a casino down the road.

I have thus come to the conclusion that in order to mitigate the effects of having a casino in western Massachusetts, it is not enough to oppose one in our boundaries. As yet, we have not been included in any conversation about this issue. On an issue of such consequence for both ourselves and for our neighbors, we deserve a seat at the table. The best way to control the outcome of this process, such that we reap the benefits and mitigate the downsides, is to ensure that we negotiate a host agreement that best addresses our concerns and our values; and then, once such an agreement is reached, to put it before the voters. My overarching goals for Holyoke’s economic future remain the same; today’s announcement marks the deployment of a new strategy, given current realities, for achieving them.

Let me be absolutely clear. There is no agreement in place between a casino development group and me. There have been no been back-room deals. My intent today is to inform the people of Holyoke of my shift in strategy before any advanced discussions or negotiations take place, so that everyone in the city may voice their ideas, concerns, and suggestions.

I realize that today’s announcement is a bit unconventional. Usually, a mayoral announcement would suggest that a deal has been reached. In this case, however, I am announcing the beginning of a transparent process that intends to take the views of our citizens into account. 

The proposal Mr. Suher and I have discussed will take advantage of some of what only Holyoke has to offer, while helping to reinvigorate our downtown and bring economic relief to Holyoke. Furthermore, the proposal would enhance the services provided by the existing concert venue at Mountain Park, the Whiting Street Reservoir, the Mount Tom State Reservation, two of the city’s golf courses, and our downtown.

In other words, this plan does not merely put its faith in some easily discredited notion that a casino will rescue our city from economic hardship. This plan goes beyond its gaming component. And with its inclusion of a 350-room hotel, a convention facility, an indoor/outdoor amphitheater, and dining options, it has the potential to expand Holyoke as a destination site for people visiting our region. The proposed resort would focus on outdoor recreation and eco-tourism, and would take advantage of the underutilized state reservations and open spaces.

Simply put, this plan has the potential to forge an outcome that is better than the status quo. What I am conveying today is a set of possibilities I am persuaded may result from our negotiating, and that would be in the best interest of our city and the region. While I cannot say with certainty what a final plan will look like, I can say that any plan must account for traffic issues; I can say that it must aid our urban revitalization; I can say that it must meet our standards for environmental sensitivity and stewardship; and I can say that it must address the socioeconomic impacts of gambling addiction, crime, and related concerns.  But above all else, the final plan would have to take into consideration input from the public.

Let me reemphasize that this project is not the saving grace for all of Holyoke’s needs, nor will it deter us from pursuing our agenda. My administration will continue to be proactive on our economic development strategy, which has promoted urban revitalization, innovation, and the creative economy, particularly in the Center City. I am not changing my administration’s priorities, but rather shifting strategies on how to deal with the maladies of gaming and the reality that one such destination will be in our region, and will very likely be at our doorstep – even if we do nothing.

In Holyoke, we still have multiple factors in our favor to compete in what is a global economy. Our location allows us to serve two of the largest markets in the nation in Boston and New York City. We have a world-class fiber-optic communications infrastructure. At a time when our nation is striving for a renewed era of manufacturing, we have a solid manufacturing base and the cheap, green energy sources that attract industry. And we are surrounded by dozens of institutions of higher education that serve more than 100,000 college students, and that each year churn out thousands of graduates who become productive members of the new knowledge-based economy.

We have the tools to foster a vibrant entrepreneurial environment. Already, my administration has made great strides in supporting our city’s extraordinary arts community, with the appointment of a new creative economy coordinator. None of this has changed with my pivot in strategy. 

The innovators and entrepreneurs Holyoke needs to attract do not want to live and work in gutted shells of cities; they want to invest and live in vibrant communities that allow businesses to flourish. We just recently cut the ribbon on the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center and are leveraging that investment and the partners involved through the Innovation District Task Force, a cooperative body whose work has been characterized by state Housing and Economic Development Secretary Greg Bialecki as the best in the entire Commonwealth.

We will continue to attract job creators and jobs in productive industries, support our budding creative community, and guide the biggest investors to our city. Furthermore, we want to encourage industries that will make Holyoke a place to which our young people want to return. And I have also come to understand that while many of the jobs that this development would yield would be for low-skilled workers, a significant a segment of our city and region are more likely to be employed first in these jobs, in order to build their careers over time.

In the coming days, we will announce the specific dates and arrangements for the facilitation of community input. The deadline for developers to submit their application fee is January 15. If a developer submits an application for a casino in Holyoke, our negotiations will move forward. But let me be clear: if we fail to reach an agreement that meets the criteria I have outlined, no deal will be signed.

Please know that I hear your voices and share your concerns. And please understand that I am moving forward in this way only because I am absolutely convinced that it is the right thing to do. I cannot accept an outcome that lets a detrimental casino plan to be placed at our doorstep without the people of Holyoke having recourse for mitigation. We have an opportunity to shape our region’s economic future in a way that will support our broader economic goals. We have an opportunity to negotiate a plan that takes advantage of what Holyoke uniquely has to offer. And once that agreement is negotiated, we will all have an opportunity to vote it up or down in a city-wide election.

I understand and sympathize with the firmly anti-casino stance of many of my core supporters. I ran for mayor because I wanted our city to dream bigger. As a candidate, and to this day, I have believed that we can – and indeed must – do better than a casino. But we cannot pretend that our city boundaries will protect our local businesses and neighborhoods from the effects of a casino in our region.

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No doubt, this move will be the source of lively debate. Such debate is a testament to the strength of our democratic process in Holyoke. And while I cannot promise the citizens of Holyoke that we will always see eye-to-eye, I can promise that I share your passion for this city. I can promise that I, like you, want what is best for this city. And I can promise that, with your help, we can use this opportunity to shape our city’s and our region’s future in a way that is consistent with our better history, our highest ideals, and our shared hopes.

Thank you. I am now happy to take any questions directed to me only.