BOSTON — Holyoke’s 23-year-old mayor stunned his backers Monday when he reversed his position and said he is open to negotiating with a developer to bring a resort casino to the western Massachusetts city.
Mayor Alex Morse ran on a staunch anti-casino platform in the November 2011 election when he defeated an incumbent mayor who supported casino gambling.
At a City Hall news conference that was punctuated by occasional jeers from casino foes, Morse explained that he was changing his position and would consider a plan by Eric Suher, owner of a former amusement park on Mount Tom, to develop a casino, hotel and entertainment complex on the 70-acre site.
“Everyone knows that I have been strongly opposed to proposals to locate a casino in the city of Holyoke,” Morse said in a prepared statement. “But when a business plan is presented to me, it is my responsibility to consider it.”
Morse said he remains philosophically opposed to casino gambling, but was worried about the possible impact on Holyoke of a casino going up in nearby Springfield.
“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.”
Casino foes said they were shocked by the mayor’s reversal. One held a sign Monday reading “Morse lied to Holyoke.” Another held a Morse campaign sign with an X drawn through it.
“Completely surprised, disappointed and feeling absolutely betrayed,” said John Epstein, a business owner and lifelong city resident who has led the casino opposition.
Epstein, in an interview, said he and other casino opponents strongly supported Morse in his campaign last year against Mayor Elaine Pluta, delivering 6,000 flyers to households that highlighted his anti-casino stance.
“He just kind of fed us to the wolves,” Epstein said of Morse’s change of heart.
Shortly after he took office in January, Hard Rock International and another local developer abandoned a proposal for a resort casino at Wyckoff Park, citing the new mayor’s opposition.
As recently as last month, Morse wrote in an opinion column that a casino would undermine efforts to revitalize Holyoke’s struggling economy.
“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,” Morse wrote.
“A casino in Holyoke would not lay the foundation for the type of sustainable economic growth we need,” he added, while acknowledging that casinos could deliver short-term benefits, including higher tax revenue.
Holyoke, a city of about 40,000 residents, had an average median household income of $31,948 during the past five years, less than half the median income for Massachusetts as a whole, according to the latest U.S. Census, which also found that 31 percent of residents lived below the federal poverty level.
Morse was a recent Brown University graduate when he became the youngest mayor in the city’s history, stressing a transition from the city’s industrial past to a knowledge-based economy.
Springfield officials have expressed strong support for a casino in that city and are considering three separate proposals. Mohegan Sun, which has proposed a casino in Palmer, is also vying for the sole western Massachusetts casino license under the state’s year-old gambling law.
Elaine Driscoll, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, said the panel has not yet been contacted about the Holyoke proposal. The commission has set a Jan. 15 deadline for would-be casino developers to submit preliminary applications and a $400,000, non-refundable application fee.
Epstein, who called Morse’s reversal “political suicide,” said opponents, would work to defeat the casino proposal in a referendum that would be required before the commission could consider the plan.