Reversing his steadfast anticasino position, Holyoke Mayor Alex B. Morse plans to announce on Monday that he supports a proposal to develop a gambling resort in his economically struggling city, intensifying the battle for the most sought-after casino license in the state.
"I think we're all realizing that casinos are coming to Western Mass., and Holyoke cannot sit on the sidelines," Morse said in an interview to discuss his stunning pivot on the issue.
Morse, 23, who campaigned for mayor in 2011 on an anticasino platform and defeated incumbent Elaine Pluta, now backs a plan to build a casino resort just north of downtown. The location, Mountain Park, is an outdoor concert venue at the site of a defunct amusement park off Interstate 91 on the side of Mount Tom.
The park's owner, Holyoke resident and businessman Eric Suher, told the Globe he is negotiating to develop a casino on the land in partnership with Len and Mark Wolman. The Wolmans are top executives of Waterford Group, a Connecticut company that was a partner in developing the Mohegan Sun casino.
"We feel very, very confident we have a solid operating and financial partnership that will be announced in the near future," Suher said.
City voters will have the final say on whether Holyoke will entertain a casino — no gambling proposal can be licensed unless the project wins their endorsement in a referendum.
Three prominent casino operators — Ameristar, MGM Resorts International, and Penn National Gaming — have proposed major gambling resorts in Springfield, each estimated by the developers to cost $800 million or more. Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno has established a citywide competition to whittle the number of projects to one or two. Downtown Springfield is about 12 miles south on Route 91 from the proposed Holyoke site.
The current operators of the Mohegan Sun also intend to pursue the sole resort casino license in Western Massachusetts, with a project planned for Palmer.
At the time Morse won the mayoral job, Hard Rock International was planning a Holyoke casino at the Wyckoff Country Club, and Morse's election was seen as a blow to those plans. After failing to persuade him to support the project, the company moved on. Hard Rock considered entering the Springfield casino sweepstakes but did not meet the city's deadline for a proposal. The company continues to look for land in Massachusetts and has been linked to a possible casino site in Everett.
Morse remained opposed as recently as this fall. In a commentary published in October by CommonWealth magazine, Morse argued "a casino in Holyoke would not aid in our economic rebirth, but would ultimately undermine the effort."
But his position began evolving after Suher quietly shared his Mountain Park proposal. "The more I heard about the specific plan Eric had outlined, the more it resonated," Morse said.
The mayor expects some supporters will be upset with his about-face. In a copy of remarks he plans to deliver in Holyoke on Monday, Morse included a line attributed to economist John Maynard Keynes: "When the facts change, I change my mind." He urged supporters to "stick with us."
Morse said he believes his city could be hurt by a Springfield casino, which could take customers from Holyoke businesses.
"The fact that, inevitably, a casino will be coming to our region does not mean we should settle for what has so far been offered," the mayor's prepared remarks say.
In addition to a gambling floor, the Mountain Park proposal calls for a 350-room hotel, convention center, performance amphitheaters, and restaurants. Morse said the proposal would also provide opportunities for outdoor recreation, such as hiking and canoeing around Mount Tom.
Suher could not provide an estimate of what the project would cost, but state law requires a minimum investment of $500 million.
The mayor insisted that the Mountain Park plan is different — and superior — to what Hard Rock had proposed in Holyoke. "Hard Rock's plan was a casino in a box," he said. "Eric's plan is more of a resort with a gaming component as part of it." The new plan also deals with traffic more effectively and would not disrupt residential neighborhoods, he said.
State campaign finance reports show that Morse received a $350 contribution from Suher in December 2011.
The mayor said he intends to negotiate an agreement with Suher and his partners for the city to host a resort casino. State law requires such a deal before the project can move forward.
Suher bought the roughly 70-acre site in 2006, he said. In 2009, he opened a seasonal outdoor concert venue on the land. Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, and Bonnie Raitt have all played there. He said the site offers an ideal location for a casino resort: "Off Route 91 and also tucked away, so we believe it will not harm any neighborhoods or downtown Holyoke."
The state gambling commission controls three resort casino licenses — one each for three regions of the state — and one license for a slot parlor that can be built anywhere. The licenses are supposed to be awarded through competitive bids, though all of the competition so far has emerged in the west.
Greater Boston has just one formal applicant, Suffolk Downs in East Boston. Commercial casino development in the southeastern region is on hold to allow the Mashpee Wampanoag time to make progress on a tribal casino.
The state deadline is Jan. 15 for commercial developers to apply for casino licenses and to submit extensive financial and personnel documents to the commission.
The five-member commission will choose each of the winning projects, with decisions not expected until early 2014.