No dice

A casino would hurt, not help, Holyoke’s economic redevelopment efforts

since the state of Massachusetts legalized casino gambling, many cities throughout the state have begun competing for the opportunity to place a casino within their borders. Indeed, many in my hometown have advocated for a casino in Holyoke, calling it a potential boon to our struggling economy. Proponents of a casino here suggest that this industry will be the city’s saving grace. They frame this issue as a cure-all for our city’s economic struggles. After doing my own research, I came to a much different conclusion: A casino in Holyoke would not aid in our economic rebirth, but would ultimately undermine the effort.

Despite the fact that this industry produces nothing, sells nothing, and siphons money from the local economy and into the hands of distant owners, the casino sympathizers think a Holyoke casino is the city’s best bet for economic rebirth. Where are the examples of cities that have been reborn thanks to a casino? Which cities have made the successful transformation from an industrial-based to a knowledge-based economy thanks to a resort powered by gambling? What proponents of a casino will not say is a belief that lies at the heart of their argument: that the city of Holyoke cannot do better than a casino.

A casino in Holyoke would not lay the foundation for the type of sustainable economic growth we need. To be sure, a casino could well have some short-term benefits, including increased tax revenue. But to champion casino economics in Holyoke would be to accept a shortsighted, narrow solution, when a more holistic and long-term approach is warranted.

Studies of the effects of casino gambling on local economies have demonstrated that the alleged benefits of casinos have been exaggerated, while the costs have been understated. Legalized gambling does produce marginal increases in tax revenue and employment. But the amount of consumer spending that shifts from local businesses to legalized gambling has very damaging effects on the local economy.

A casino does not create wealth; it transfers it. Regions benefit from casino gambling when people from outside the region come to spend money there. But there is no evidence that this would be the case at a Holyoke site. A casino in Holyoke would not be a destination gambling site, but a convenience gambling site. It would thus serve primarily to remove money from the local economy and put it in the hands of casino owners who do not live here. This is how casinos work—by design. Because of this, I do not believe a casino would be useful even as part of a holistic approach. We have the resources and the drive to create an economy that will benefit all, and for generations to come. When it comes to a casino, we do not need to settle.

I ran for mayor because I wanted our city to dream bigger. While casino proponents see a massive casino complex sitting atop the natural splendor of our Mount Tom range as progress, I see something different. I see Holyoke poised to become one of the most desirable innovation and technology centers in the US. I see Holyoke as the epicenter for the next generation of American ingenuity, competitiveness, and growth.

We have multiple advantages in our favor to compete in what is now a global economy. Our location allows us to serve two of the largest markets in the United States in Boston and New York City. We have a world-class fiber-optic communications infrastructure. We have a solid manufacturing base and the cheap, green energy sources that attract this industry in a time where our country is pulling together to see a renewed era of manufacturing. And we are surrounded by dozens of quality, higher-education institutions that serve more than 100,000 college students

and every year churn out thousands of graduates who become productive members of the new knowledge-based economy.

All of these advantages played a role in locating a new, high-tech computing center in Holyoke. Two of the best universities in the world, Harvard and MIT, are investing here in the computing center, and this move is not lost on other investors. The supercomputing power we’re hosting is already drawing interest from companies and universities that can use this technology.

The great shortcoming of our region is that we see so many college graduates abandon Holyoke and the Pioneer Valley in favor of other metropolitan areas that offer the types of jobs and urban environments they seek. We need to use the computing center as leverage to create the entrepreneurial environment which will expand our technology, manufacturing, and innovation-based economy. That is precisely the premise of the Holyoke Innovation District Task Force, which the city co-chairs. This group of government, academic, and private-sector stakeholders from Holyoke, region, and state are working together to have our city serve as a catalyst and epicenter of innovation in the Pioneer Valley, while also strengthening other economic and job opportunities related to manufacturing and commerce.

Furthermore, my administration has aggressively sought to foster the creative energy of our residents that will fuel our creative sector businesses and organizations. Part of this approach was the creation of a new position for a creative economy coordinator. This position, which I proposed and the City Council approved, will promote businesses and jobs in Holyoke related to art, culture, design, architecture, marketing, hospitality, and tourism as a way to leverage private investment and create a vibrant urban downtown through creative place-making strategies.

With such promising work ahead of us, we do not have time to entertain the fanciful notion that a casino is our economic salvation. Going after a casino is a gamble in and of itself, one that would tie up valuable city resources, jeopardizing our progress at this critical juncture in our economic transformation.

Now is a time for Holyoke to renew its highest ideals and remember its better history. In the 1860s, our Holyoke forebears recognized opportunity in the soon-to-explode industry of paper manufacturing, and they pursued it aggressively.  The result of their foresight can be seen all around us—in our magnificent buildings and our stately homes. By harnessing the economic potential of the paper industry, Holyoke became one of the wealthiest communities in Massachusetts. When I look at Holyoke today, I see what our Holyoke ancestors saw when they created the Paper City of the World: a city of limitless possibility.

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. I oppose a casino in Holyoke because I have not given up on Holyoke. We need 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.

The majority of the jobs available at a new casino complex would be low-skill and low pay. Is this really a way to entice our young people to return to our community after college? If we want to cultivate the talents and creative energy of our young people, we need something firmer and more sustainable.

Meet the Author

We need to do better and we will do better—and the first step is rejecting shortsightedness in favor of a more sustainable approach. 

Alex B. Morse is the mayor of Holyoke.