Photo Mark Roessler
Depending on your perspective, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse’s recent handling of the casino issue in his city is evidence of his lack of leadership ability and, indeed, his lack of trustworthiness—or it’s an example of the often messy but ultimately necessary public decisionmaking process, one that has left him wiser and better prepared for his important job.
Morse, no doubt, would prefer that Holyoke residents adopt the latter perspective—which is not to say that he’s denying that he’s made some serious blunders these past few weeks. “When you’ve messed up, there’s really no way to spin it,” he told the Advocate in a recent interview.
Morse’s mess-up: after running on a strongly anti-casino platform last year, this November he pivoted, saying he was now open to considering a casino in the city and was, in fact, reviewing a proposal by Mountain Park owner Eric Suher to build one on Mount Tom. The backlash was immediate and fierce, with one-time supporters accusing Morse of betrayal and predicting that his first term in office would be his last. Finally, after several hectic and emotional weeks, on Dec. 13, Morse announced that he was dropping the casino idea, calling it a “divisive” issue that was fracturing the city when it needs unity to move forward.
“We have so much momentum here,” Morse told the Advocate. Indeed, for many his election symbolized that momentum, promising to carry Holyoke into a promising future built on high-tech development, arts and cultural opportunities and a revived downtown—all efforts, he said, that would have been pushed to the margins if Holyoke had decided to jump into the competition to host the one casino to be sited in Western Mass.
While a casino might offer some perks, the mayor said in his Dec. 13 statement, “I now realize that the allure of these short-term economic benefits are not worth a protracted exercise that would divert us and cause me to lose sight of the values that got me elected.”
So what had prompted Morse’s temporary change of heart on the wisdom of allowing a casino in Holyoke?
In September, the mayor said, Suher approached Marcos Marrero, the city’s director of economic development, with a plan to develop a resort casino on the site of the old Mountain Park amusement park, where Suher now has an outdoor music venue. Given his anti-casino campaign platform and his quick dismissal of another casino proposal, at the site of the Wyckoff Country Club, shortly after taking office in January, Morse said he was “surprised as anybody” that Suher would approach his administration with the idea: “I never anticipated that the conversation would emerge, given my hard public stance on casinos.”
Nonetheless, Morse met with Suher a few times and on Nov. 26 held a press conference, where he announced that while he still had personal misgivings about casino development, he would consider the proposal.
“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,” Morse said that day.
But, he added, he was conscious of the effects a casino nearby in Springfield could have on Holyoke. “We share one metropolitan area and I cannot assume that our city boundaries will provide us any protection from a casino down the road,” Morse said. Keeping a casino out of Holyoke wouldn’t be enough to protect the city’s interests, he said. “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 …”
Morse’s new position had leaked in the Boston Globe the weekend before his Nov. 26 press conference, and some of his comments that day responded to criticisms that had emerged over the weekend. He insisted, for instance, that he’d made “no back-room deals” with Suher or commitments to any developers, and that any casino proposal that made it past his administration’s criteria would come to voters for final approval.
“No doubt, this move will be the source of lively debate,” Morse concluded.
“Lively” to say the least. Pro-casino residents cheered the mayor’s openness to the proposal; former Mayor Elaine Pluta, whom Morse defeated in the 2011 election, showed up at the press conference and told reporters that his new position was a vindication of her pro-casino stance. But the loudest response came from casino opponents, who also showed up that day at City Hall, where the mayor struggled to be heard over angry shouts of “Shame on you, Alex!” In the weeks that followed, they took their protests virtual, voicing their disapproval on Facebook, Twitter and an on-line petition that by last week had more than 2,500 signatures from both Holyokers and residents of other towns.
While Morse moved ahead with a plan for evaluating casino proposals—in addition to Suher, Paper City Development, the group behind the Wyckoff plan, quickly jumped back in the mix—his heart didn’t appear to be in it. On Dec. 13, he made his second bombshell announcement in three weeks, this time saying he was “halting all consideration” of a Holyoke casino.
“It has become increasingly clear that pursuing this conversation will only be a distraction from my administration’s broader economic goals, and I regret not realizing this fact sooner,” Morse announced.
In an interview after his second announcement, Morse spoke openly about what had transpired in the preceding weeks: why he’d made the decisions he had, the mistakes he’d made in the process, and why he believed, ultimately, that he’d done the right thing.
The mayor reiterated what he’d said at his Nov. 26 press conference: even though he remained personally opposed to a casino, he felt a responsibility to give the issue a public airing. But, he told the Advocate, there was another motivation behind his decision to make his announcement: a concern that “Eric would make it public and cause a public fight.” If he simply rejected Suher’s plan privately, as he’d done with the Paper City proposal, Morse said, he believed that Suher would have gone to pro-casino city councilors and used the matter as a wedge issue. As mayor, Morse said, he felt it was important to “get ahead of that.”
Contentious and short-lived as it was, Morse maintains that his administration’s period of considering a casino plan was useful: he wanted the city to go through a public process, and it did, with residents sending a clear message that they do not want a casino. “We should also be able to see this as a victory for organizers and people in the city,” he said.
While the hecklers at his first press conference received most of the media attention, Morse said, he also heard from people who appreciated his making the decision to publicly consider a casino proposal—a sentiment that he hopes many city residents will come to share, even if they don’t feel it yet. “At the end of the day, people will look back and know I made the right decision, even if the process was a little messy to get there,” he said. “I think it’s the reality of having to deliberate the issues publicly.”
M orse hopes the past few weeks come to be seen as “a moment in time when the mayor made a mistake and learned from it and became a better mayor because of it. … Too often in politics, you make a decision and dig your heels in, and you’re too proud to turn back.”
While some observers predict that Morse won’t bounce back from the political damage caused by his casino reversals, he plans to run for re-election. With the election just 10 months away, he needs to mend fences with one-time supporters who felt burned by his wavering and to assuage the concerns of voters who, regardless on their position on casinos, now see him as another flip-flopping politician.
But, Morse said, he’s not worried about Election Day repercussions, based on the positive feedback he’s received since his most recent decision.
“I’m not incredibly concerned about the impact of this situation,” he said. “Time is on my side of being able to express my message to the people of the city. … I think we’ve done a number of great things since January, and I think we’ll have a number of other great things under our belt” by the election. That includes expanding home ownership and mixed-income rental housing in the city, a continuing focus on reviving downtown Holyoke with both public and private investments, ongoing infrastructure improvements, building on existing tech and cultural developments in the city, and the high-speed rail service due to come to the city in 2014, he said.
And, Morse added, he intends to make sure that Holyoke benefits from any casino that opens in the region, through local hiring commitments and a revenue-sharing arrangement. In retrospect, he said, that’s the way to ensure that the city gets something positive out of a casino development—not by spending months fighting over a possible Holyoke casino that very well might never materialize.
A casino, Morse noted, has the “ability to define a community,” and not always positively. “Let’s focus on the things that make Holyoke special,” he said. “Those are the things that are going to define us and make us different and special. Obviously, I regret getting sidetracked from them.”•