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In another reversal, Holyoke mayor drops pursuit of casino

In another dramatic U-turn, Mayor Alex Morse of Holyoke has killed potential casino developments in his city, a month after he shocked supporters by reversing a longtime anticasino stance and announcing he was open to a gambling resort.

Morse, in a statement Thursday, apologized to city residents for briefly opening the door to ­casinos, which he said was a mistake that stemmed from the allure of millions of dollars in tax revenue.

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“Ultimately, I hope to build on this humbling moment and to ­become a better mayor as a result,” said Morse, 23.

Mayors have enormous power under the state casino law to block proposals from moving forward, simply by refusing to negotiate with developers. Morse said he has ended talks with two development groups that proposed casino resorts in Holyoke.

“A casino may be coming to our area, but it will not be coming here,” Morse said in the statement.

Morse’s flip-flop-flip could ­reduce the number of competitors for the sole Western Massachusetts casino license. At least three other development groups have expressed interest in competing for the license, including two in Springfield and one in Palmer.

The developers that had been pursuing a casino license in ­Holyoke, based on Morse’s invitation last month, said that they were blindsided by the news the mayor had again changed his mind.

Paper City Development, a group that proposed a casino resort at Wyckoff Country Club, said it received notice of Morse’s reversal Thursday, less than an hour after exchanging documents related to its project with the mayor’s economic ­development staff.

“This is a significantly shocking turn of events from Mayor Morse,” the Paper City group said in a statement. “But we are business people, and we take risks.

“We feel worse for the 600 people who had already signed a petition in favor of allowing a public vetting of this issue and insuring the people’s right to vote upon this for themselves. . . . We sympathize with the many supporters of this effort whose emotions have been played with yet again, whether they were for or against a ­casino for Holyoke.”

Holyoke businessman Eric Suher — who had proposed a ­casino at Mountain Park, a concert venue on Mount Tom — said Thursday that he had just learned of Morse’s change of heart and wanted to know more before commenting.

Morse was elected last year on an anticasino platform, beating incumbent Elaine ­Pluta, who favored bringing a gambling resort to Holyoke.

The mayor remained publicly against casinos until late ­November, when he suddenly announced a change of heart, motivated in part, he said, by casino proposals in nearby Springfield by MGM Resorts and Penn National Gaming.

“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,” he said at the time.

Morse’s turn toward casino gambling enraged many of his supporters, who said they felt betrayed. Casino opponents jeered and heckled the mayor during his speech announcing his willingness to consider a gambling resort project.

Peter Ubertaccio, a political scientist at Stonehill College, said Morse’s latest move could come with huge political costs.

“He did a very abrupt shift early in his tenure on a signature issue,” said Ubertaccio, refer­ring to Morse’s pivot ­toward casinos last month. That move could be explained as a response to new facts.

But switching back “in the blink of an eye” could hurt his credibility, he said.

In explaining his return to his original position, Morse said the contentious debate over casinos in Holyoke had ­become a distraction.

“At a time when our community needs unity of purpose, a yearlong debate over locating a casino within our borders will only sow division and discord,” he said. “In retrospect, I should have foreseen this sort of division, and I apologize for introducing it. Initializing this process was a mistake, and I accept that responsibility.”

Morse will seek money from casino developments in neighboring communities to reduce any negative effects the projects cause in Holyoke and promised to “do all I can to secure both revenue and jobs for Holyoke throughout this process.

“Now, more than ever,” Morse said, “I recognize how complicated the work of good governance can be. I have learned from this experience.”

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com.
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