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Between the Lines: Change of Heart

Holyoke’s young mayor goes all in on a Holyoke casino proposal.

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Thursday, December 06, 2012

In the summer of 2011, I sat down for coffee and an interview with Alex Morse, then a candidate for mayor of Holyoke. I knew the rap against Morse, that he was too young and green (he announced his candidacy while finishing his senior year of college) to handle such an important job. Still, I walked away from the interview impressed by his intelligence and energy, and heartened by his seemingly sincere commitment to tapping into Holyoke’s great potential and leading the city in exciting new directions.

One thing gave me pause, though: when I asked Morse his opinion on casinos, he demurred, saying he’d prefer to “have the casino conversation” after the state Legislature voted on then-pending legislation to allow them in the commonwealth. He did, however, suggest there were better ways to revitalize Holyoke, and talked about a vibrant economy based in high-tech jobs, the arts and tourism, local small businesses. “We’re a great city. We don’t need a casino to make it a great city,” he told me.

Later, Morse sent me an email following up on that part of the conversation. If casinos were legalized, he wrote, he would “not be leading the charge” to bring one to Holyoke. “As the city’s chief marketing officer, I will focus on retaining existing businesses, recruiting new investment, and reforming the process to make it easier for business to move to Holyoke. .... More than ever, we are on the cusp of revitalizing downtown Holyoke. Bringing a casino to Holyoke will no doubt jeopardize efforts to revitalize our downtown.”

Lawmakers went on to approve the casino bill. And as the campaign progressed, Morse emerged as the anti-casino candidate, in contrast to incumbent Mayor Elaine Pluta. Morse won the election, promptly rebuffed overtures from casino developers interested in the Wyckoff Country Club site, and fought to fund a new City Hall position focused on developing the “creative economy” he’d offered as an alternative.

Then—cue sound effects of screeching brakes—last week, Morse announced that he was now considering a proposal from Eric Suher, owner of several local music venues including one at Holyoke’s Mountain Park, to build a “resort casino” on Mount Tom. Morse’s explanation for his change of heart: with a Valley casino apparently inevitable, it’s better for Holyoke to have a say in the matter than to watch a neighboring community, like Springfield, call all the shots.

That justification, frankly, is just not as persuasive and well articulated as the arguments Morse previously made—as recently as a month ago, in Commonwealth magazine—against a Holyoke casino. Nor does it address his numerous earlier assertions that a casino would, in fact, hurt the city’s development prospects.

Compounding his difficulties, Morse has to make his case over cries of protest—some literal; he was heckled at a press conference last week—from residents who voted for him based on his anti-casino position and now feel, quite simply, betrayed. Former supporters are calling for Morse’s ouster; city councilors are, to varying degrees, distancing themselves from him. The mayors of Northampton and Easthampton have both raised concerns about a casino next door and noted that Morse failed to clue them in on his change of heart. Some critics accuse Morse of arranging a sweetheart deal for Suher, a Holyoke native who brings some baggage into the deal: while Suher’s music venues are, indisputably, a key element of the Northampton scene, he’s also tussled with city officials in both cities over liquor licenses and zoning issues. More recently, stagehands unions filed unfair labor charges against Suher in a dispute over pay and benefits. Morse has said he'll consider proposals from other developers as well.

Of course, Morse’s new position could win him support from pro-casino voters who opposed him in the election. But he won’t win over all those former detractors; some have other beefs with Morse, like his approval of a needle-exchange program in the city. Angry residents are now predicting Morse’s defeat in next year’s election—assuming he even runs. History shows, however, that voters don’t always punish politicians for flip-flopping; Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno won re-election twice after abandoning his campaign vow to abolish his city’s controversial trash fee—admittedly, a much less weighty matter than a casino.

Morse has asked Holyoke residents to hear him out, to trust that he’s got the city’s best interests at heart. And here’s where charges that his inexperience makes him ill equipped to lead his city might resonate: voters already put their trust in Morse when they elected him, in large part on the strength of his casino position. To ask them to trust him again smacks of naïveté.•

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