Alex B. Morse’s election as mayor of Holyoke last year was bigger than any single issue, but his opposition to a casino in the city was a major factor. An improbable winner at age 22, Morse represented hope for Holyoke; he seemed to embody the new ideas the city would need to transcend its downtrodden past. His opponent, like civic leaders in a number of mill towns around Massachusetts, saw a casino as a source of much-needed economic development. Morse touted a different approach, in which old mills and theaters would be converted to a combination of residences and office space. His opposition to a casino clearly resonated with voters, and his election was a fatal blow to Hard Rock International’s plan for a Holyoke casino.
For all these reasons, Morse’s new position on the issue is more than just a change of heart. His decision to back a gambling resort at Mountain Park — an outdoor concert venue on the site of a defunct amusement park — undercuts the reasons many Holyoke voters elected Morse to begin with. Moreover, Morse’s shift was head-spinningly abrupt. As recently as October, he wrote in a commentary in CommonWealth Magazine that “a casino in Holyoke would not aid in our economic rebirth, but would ultimately undermine the effort.”
The young mayor told the Globe’s Mark Arsenault that his new position began evolving after discussions with Eric Suher, the Holyoke resident and businessman behind the city’s latest casino proposal. At a recent press conference, Morse said pending casino proposals in Springfield also helped change his mind. They fall within a 12- to 15-minute drive from Holyoke, so Morse now questions why Holyoke should share in any negative consequences without realizing any benefits.
In some ways, Morse is making the same calculation that other reluctant casino proponents have made — that with the new state law making some form of casino gambling inevitable, there’s some merit to trying to maximize the public benefit. Yet Morse’s very election suggested that Holyoke residents were far from resigned to having a casino in town, and the furious reaction among his supporters suggests that sentiments haven’t shifted much since.