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Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz opposes Holyoke casino

Narkewicz’s statement followed Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse’s announcement that he will consider plans to build a casino at Mountain Park and perhaps other locations in the city. It also appeared to set the Northampton mayor on course for a battle with an old foe, Eric Suher, the owner of the Iron Horse Entertainment Group, the owner of Mountain Park and proponent of the Holyoke proposal.

Suher is among the more influential businessmen in Northampton. His company owns and operates the Calvin Theater, Pearl Street Nightclub and the Iron Horse, among other holdings in the city. And he has a contentious relationship with Narkewicz. Suher sued Northampton in 2009 over its creation of a business improvement district. The lawsuit is ongoing.

In an interview Monday, Suher sought to contrast his casino proposal with those being proposed in Springfield and Palmer. Northampton and Holyoke would have little to no say in the development of a Springfield or Palmer casino, he said. And yet a casino in either of those communities would pose a direct threat to businesses farther up the Valley, he said.

“If we didn’t proceed with a plan for Holyoke, we would be at the mercy of Springfield or Palmer,” Suher said. “I have major investments in Holyoke. I have major investments in Northampton. I have investments in Easthampton. I want to see these communities enhanced.”

Suher said his entertainment venues’ chief competition comes from Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. The Nutmeg State casinos have considerable resources to attract top acts, he said. “If that were to happen 15 minutes from Northampton that would be devastating,” he said.

Suher said he is in negotiations with Len and Mark Wolman to operate the casino. The Wolmans are top executives from the Waterford Group, a Connecticut company that helped developed Mohegan Sun. And while he said the group was not ready to come forward publicly with the full plan, the Holyoke casino would include a “hotel, convention center and entertainment component.”

Still, Suher acknowledged Narkewicz’s and other local officials’ concerns.

“I understand the skepticism,” Suher said. “I need to prove to the mayor, the city council ... that this will enhance Northampton.”

Narkewicz questioned whether Suher can make Northampton promises as the casino’s property owner, not its operator.

“That part is still an open question,” Narkewicz said.

The mayor said he spoke with Suher last week regarding his conversations with Morse.

“He basically described that he was having these conversations, but that was sort of the extent of it,” Narkewicz said. “No discussion of any concrete proposal and I was very clear that my baseline position is that I don’t believe casinos are a viable economic development strategy.

Narkewicz said he was unsure of how seriously to take Suher’s conversations with Morse. The Holyoke mayor did not call him prior to the leak of his plans in the Boston Globe on Saturday or before his press conference on Monday, Narkewicz said. Morse called after the press conference to say that he regretted not having spoken sooner and the two agreed to sit down soon to talk, Narkewicz said.

Narkewicz said he is concerned the Holyoke proposal would reverse decades of work aimed at making Northampton a cultural center. A Holyoke casino with plans for restaurants and an events center poses a threat to those efforts, he said.

“Obviously, these are the things we are doing already in Northampton. We are a destination,” Narkewicz said. “I can’t imagine a scenario where that wouldn’t have an impact on Northampton.”

Traffic concerns

The ramifications of a Holyoke casino go beyond Northampton.

In Easthampton, Mayor Michael A. Tautznik said that while he believes a casino in Holyoke could benefit his city, he has concerns about traffic and other issues that he hopes Holyoke and the developer will address soon.

“I think that it’s good to be open to this kind of economic development initiative, and I tried to encourage (Morse) to be open-minded about it last year when it was the Hard Rock,” he said.

Tautznik said he could not speak to whether he supported the idea of a casino resort on Suher’s land because he has not seen any plans.

“I think if there’s going to be a casino in the Pioneer Valley, it would be the most beneficial to Easthampton for it to be in Holyoke,” Tautznik said. “But there’s been no effort to reach out to us yet and we have some real concerns.”

He said his main hang-up is the proposed casino’s impact on traffic on Route 141 in the area of I-91’s Exit 17, which already gets congested during rush hour and affects commuters in Easthampton.

The Hard Rock developers had come up with a plan to reconstruct the intersections that Tautznik believed would alleviate traffic issues, but he is concerned that Suher’s plan may not address Route 141.

He also said that he is interested in hearing if the casino developers plan to go “above and beyond” the state requirements for sharing revenue with abutters. Hard Rock developers had proposed giving approximately $360,000 annually to Easthampton, in addition to the required amount, to “help address our concerns,” Tautznik said.

He said he hopes to hear more details soon.

“The process needs to be more open and include outreach to neighboring communities,” he said.

In South Hadley, Select Board Chairman John R. Hine said he is not for or against a casino in Holyoke, but he also said he hopes there will be a chance for neighboring communities to weigh in on one.

“Since this news is relatively new, it’s something we haven’t thought a whole lot about,” he said Monday. “We’ll be very interested in seeing how this plan develops.”

He said a casino’s effects on South Hadley would depend a lot on where it was located, since the two communities are separated by the Connecticut River except for their connection through the Joseph. E. Muller and Vietnam Memorial bridges.

“This proposal is for up at Mountain Park, so that’s pretty removed from us in terms of traffic or any spillover of people,” he said.

“I think that with casinos in general, they’re probably not as beneficial as supporters say, or as bad as people who are against it say,” he said. “There are always going to be drawbacks and benefits to anything.”

It is unclear what, if any, role Hampshire County communities would have in negotiating with a potential Holyoke developer. Among the requirements of the gaming law is that a potential casino operator must negotiate a mitigation agreement with the host community and surrounding communities. Yet the law leaves it up to the Gaming Commission to develop “procedures and protocols” in the event a developer fails to come to an agreement with a surrounding community.

Elaine Driscoll, spokeswoman for the Gaming Commission, said it has yet to establish such protocols. The commission is scheduled to consider that topic when it meets during the week of Dec. 10, she said.

In fact, the commission has yet to establish criteria for what constitutes a surrounding community, Driscoll said. That too is a topic of consideration for the commission when it meets next month, she said.

The law directs the Gaming Commission to consider factors including “population, infrastructure, distance from the gaming establishment and political boundaries” in determining which cities and towns are surrounding communities.

State Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat and architect of the casino legislation, said the intent of the law is provide mitigation to municipalities that can demonstrate the adverse impacts of a casino. The host community has priority standing and no casino application can be complete without the approval of the host community, he noted.

A casino company could decide not to negotiate a mitigation agreement with surrounding communities, Rosenberg said. However, developers have a strong incentive to do so, he said, noting that a surrounding community could go to the Gaming Commission and, if it demonstrated an adverse impact, could win mitigation assistance.

Rosenberg said he had no opinion on the Holyoke proposal, saying, “We intentionally created a strong, perhaps the strongest regulatory body in the country, to insulate those decisions from politics.”

Potential casino developers must pass a two-part process to earn one of the state’s three casino licenses. In Phase 1, the commission reviews applicants’ finances and background to determine if the operator is viable. The deadline for Phase 1 applications is Jan. 15. All applicants must pay a $400,000 application fee.

In Phase 2, the commission reviews a developer’s specific proposal. The Phase 2 regulations, which cover topics like host and surrounding community mitigation agreements, have yet to be established by the Gaming Commission.

Narkewicz said he would be “proactive” in trying to influence how the commission decides the role of surrounding communities in negotiations with developers. The Northampton mayor said he convened a conference call with City Council President William Dwight and Gaming Commission officials to talk about Northampton’s options in casino negotiations.

He said he would submit his concerns to the commission in writing and promised that either he or a representative of his administration would be present at the commission meetings next month.

“I am going to do my best to send a message clearly to the Gaming Commission that any proposal that has a significantly detrimental impact on Northampton goes against the whole reason for wanting to create gaming for the state, to generate tourism,” Narkewicz said.

Staff writer Rebecca Everett contributed to this story.

Below is the complete text of the statement issued Monday by Northampton Mayor David J. Narkewicz.

Mayor David Narkewicz’s response to
Mayor Alex Morse’s Press Conference

November 26, 2012

My position with regard to casino gaming in western Massachusetts remains unchanged. I view any casino development in our region as a serious potential threat to the social and economic vitality of Northampton and have made it clear since my candidacy that I will advocate for the best interests of our community as the Commonwealth’s gaming process moves forward.

The City of Northampton has worked for decades to create a unique economic environment with a strong base of locally owned businesses, great schools, safe neighborhoods, and a vibrant downtown that is an unmatched retail, dining, and arts and entertainment destination for the region and New England.

I have not spoken with the Mayor of Holyoke about any prospective casino in his city, but I certainly look forward to hearing from him after this morning’s announcement.

I have serious concerns about a resort casino located six miles from the heart of downtown Northampton and will work with other surrounding communities to protect our interests and the interests of the region should any casino proposal be advanced in Holyoke.


Alex Morse explains decision to consider Holyoke casino

Monday, November 26, 2012

HOLYOKE — Over cries of “liar” and “sellout,” Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse officially opened his city to the possibility of a resort casino Monday. The announcement capped a surprising reversal for the 23-year-old mayor, who defeated incumbent Elaine Pluta in 2011 by running on an anti-casino platform. Many of those same supporters who lifted him to victory a year ago …

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