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Gambling foes blast Holyoke mayor

Alex Morse, Holyoke mayor

Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse spoke before the City Council’s Ordinance Committee in May.

Casino opponents in Holyoke are stunned and infuriated by Mayor Alex B. Morse’s reversal of his longstanding anti-casino positions, and promise a fierce political fight as they renew their resistance to a gambling resort in their city.

“This was a calculated betrayal on the mayor’s part,” said resident John P. Epstein, a staunch casino opponent who supported Morse’s 2011 campaign for mayor. “He would not have been elected without the efforts of the anti-casino citizens in Holyoke. We have been caught completely off guard.”

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Morse was elected last year at age 22 on an anti-casino platform, beating incumbent Mayor Elaine Pluta, who favored bringing a gambling resort to Holyoke. The casino issue was one of the strongest contrasts between the candidates, and many members of the anti-casino groups in the city campaigned on Morse’s behalf.

At the time the new mayor took office in January, Hard Rock International was proposing a Holyoke casino at Wyckoff Country Club. The project’s proponents could not persuade Morse to support the plan, and Hard Rock moved on.

But Morse recently had a change of heart, and now intends to negotiate with a new development group proposing a gambling resort at Mountain Park, an outdoor concert venue on Mt. Tom that is owned by Holyoke businessman Eric Suher. After discussing his pivot on the issue with the Globe for a story that ran over the weekend, Morse formally announced his new position in a speech Monday at Holyoke City Hall. He faced heckling from anti-casino residents upset about his U-turn.

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“No doubt, this move will be the source of lively debate,” said Morse, in a bit of an understatement, according to a copy of his remarks.

Holyoke’s City Council president, Kevin Jourdain, said more than 100 people showed up to hear Morse’s remarks, and that many were furious. “If I could have a dollar for every time he was called a liar, I’d be a millionaire,” Jourdain said in an interview.

In his remarks, Morse said three pending casino proposals in Springfield influenced his decision. Ameristar, MGM Resorts International, and Penn National Gaming have each put forth elaborate proposals for Springfield, each estimated by the developers to cost $800 million or more.

“For me, in an ideal world, we would not have a casino within our boundaries,” said Morse, according to his remarks. “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 15 minutes from [Holyoke] City Hall; one at Mountain Park would be 12,” said Morse. “We share one metropolitan area and I cannot assume that our city boundaries will provide us any protection from a casino down the road.”

Casino opponents, who thought they had defeated the casino industry with Morse’s election, are steeling themselves for another long, hard political battle against well-funded proponents. “We’re very disappointed, very concerned,” said Lyn Horan, a member of the group Citizens for a Better Holyoke. Casino interests “will use a divide-and-conquer strategy, which will be damaging forever.”

But Pluta, who lost the mayoral election to Morse a year ago, said she was “excited about the fact that we’ll be in the game,” in pursuit of casino development rights. “I just hope it’s not too late.”

The state gambling commission has set a Jan. 15 deadline for developers to apply for a casino license, pay a $400,000 application fee, and submit extensive company financial documents. Detailed architectural plans probably will not be required until late in 2013.

The former mayor said she was not upset that Morse changed his mind after defeating her as an anti-casino candidate. “Right now, I feel vindicated,” said Pluta.

The mayor’s change of heart does not guarantee there will ever be a casino in Holyoke. Once the mayor negotiates an agreement with the developers for the city to host a gambling resort, the project must win the endorsement of city voters in a referendum. Only then may the developers complete their application to the state gambling commission for a license. There is only one casino license available for Western Massachusetts; at least four other development groups have expressed interest in competing for it, including the three in Springfield and one in Palmer.

“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,” Morse said.

Paper City Development Co., the local development group that was Hard Rock’s partner in its Holyoke proposal, suggested it may get back into the mix, now that Morse has signaled new openness to a gambling business.

“We realize that this is the type of economic development that, after weighing the facts on job creation and new revenue for a community, a mayor’s opinion might change,” said Joseph Lashinger, managing partner, in a statement. “We are very interested in learning more about his new views . . . and working with him, the City Council, and the people of Holyoke. Ultimately, we hope that this will still be a decision for the voters to decide.”

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.
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