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Holyoke mayor’s flip-flop on casinos highlights issue’s complexity

The curious maneuvering during the last five weeks of 2012 by Holyoke Mayor Alex B. Morse over prospects for a casino in his city has shone a light on the highly complex and emotional process of deciding on gaming in western Massachusetts.

Morse, elected in 2011 on an anti-casino stance, stunningly reversed course in late November by announcing he was open to considering a proposal by Eric Suher for a casino at Mountain Park. After considerable backlash, by mid-December Morse said he would not pursue a casino development in Holyoke because of the divisive debate over the project.

Whether this proves to be a fatal political misstep by Morse, 23, will be decided by Holyoke voters in the coming year.

Meanwhile, the brief romance with Suher, a well-known local businessman and resident, helped focus attention on the process for determining where to place a casino and its critical importance for the entire region. It is not an issue just for a single community, but rather a decision that will have a tremendous impact on the economy and livability of the entire Pioneer Valley for years to come.

If Holyoke indeed is no longer a player in the casino sweepstakes, there are still two proposals for Springfield and one for Palmer. Western Massachusetts has attracted the most interest of any region in the state since Gov. Deval Patrick last year approved up to three resort-style casinos and a slots parlor in Massachusetts.

The mayors of Northampton and Easthampton, in particular, have responded appropriately by pushing for a seat at the table as decisions are made about a potential casino. With much still to be decided about the role surrounding communities will play in deciding about specific gaming proposals, it is important that they be aggressive in emphasizing the regional nature of the issue.

Northampton Mayor David J. Narkewicz, a vocal opponent of a casino in Holyoke, has reservations about a gambling site anywhere in the Valley. Narkewicz believes it is critical to address at a regional level the impacts of a potential casino, and he and other municipal leaders began addressing those issues in mid-December when they gathered at the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.

And Easthampton Mayor Michael A. Tautznik correctly pointed out, in response to Morse’s overture for a regional discussion about his short-lived support for a casino in Holyoke, that more specifics are needed before any proposal can be properly evaluated.

“What’s missing are the details,” Tautznik said in December. “The unknowns are what give us pause.”

What is known is that 2013 will be a critical year in determining the home of a casino in western Massachusetts. Potential developers have until Jan. 15 to submit preliminary applications and a nonrefundable $400,000 fee to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. Those will get a preliminary review to determine if a developer has a viable plan.

It is during the second stage of reviews — when specific proposals will be evaluated — that surrounding communities will play a role in examining the impact on the region’s economy and culture and getting concerns on the table.

It is critical that Narkewicz and Tautznik continue to lead the way in securing a local voice in shaping the future of casino gambling in the Valley.

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