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Editorial: A new spin of casino wheel in Holyoke

For Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, deciding to bet on betting is a big risk with an uncertain payout. Within a year of taking office to national notice at age 22, and elected in part because he declared his opposition to casino gambling in Holyoke, Morse did a 180-degree turn and will now lead his city into the gaming fray.

He does so at political risk, because the field of proposed casinos is big and competitive and Morse will be unlikely to show any results to voters when he seeks re-election next November.

When Morse annnounced his new stance Monday, people listening at City Hall shouted “liar” and “sellout.” One former supporter accused the mayor of a “calculated betrayal.”

That goes too far, but Morse has been making calculations and it’s worth sorting them out.

Though Boston Magazine’s website quickly labeled Morse a flip-flopper, the mayor says he still thinks, as he did while running last year, that casino gambling makes for poor economic development. Just this fall, the mayor ventured in an article at CommonwealthMagazine.org that a casino would “undermine” his city’s hopes for an economic rebirth.

But now, rather than rebuffing casinos, including one earlier proposed by Paper City Development for the Wyckoff Country Club, Morse has kicked off a hurried effort to view and vet proposals before a state deadline of Jan. 15.

Elected leaders must keep their minds open (consider the disastrous anti-tax pledge so many in Congress signed) so we won’t scold Morse for revising his thinking. After nearly a year in office, Morse can’t govern in the abstract, as a candidate can.

In explaining his switch, Morse argued that Holyoke would lose economically if Springfield or Palmer secure the only western Massachusetts casino allowed by state law. In principle, casino gambling isn’t good economic development, the mayor was still saying, as he had as a candidate. But down in the City Hall weeds, after a year fretting over his city’s grim balance sheet, it is better to make a play for the revenues and other benefits the city would receive from a casino.

That may be the budget big picture, but opening the door to a casino at the country club, or at Eric Suher’s Mountain Park, is the bad end that led many to vote for Morse last year over Mayor Elaine Pluta, a casino supporter. For them, Morse’s move is a betrayal and they may punish him for it at the next election.

Meantime, people still do have a say. The city must hold a referendum on whether or not to host a casino.

Whatever voters want, Morse must work to regain their trust. It didn’t help that newspapers reported his switch before he could describe it himself. That may be a rookie mistake, but even veteran politicians can find their timetables upset.

Morse is also mending fences with mayors in Northampton and Easthampton. For businesses in Northampton, the prospect of a casino rising on the southern slopes of Mount Tom may be different than seeing one open in Springfield. We agree with Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz that his city’s tourism trade should not suffer declines just so the state can promote economic development through casino gambling.

Cue the jargony term “mitigation,” which is actually money-gation. Easthampton’s mayor notes that Paper City Development had pledged $360,000 in yearly payments just for the city’s trouble of having a casino next door. Meantime, it’s unclear which neighboring communities will have piles of money offered them. The Gaming Commission has no criteria defining what is or is not a surrounding community.

Our definition: Noisy ones that demand a seat at the table.

Back at City Hall in Holyoke, Morse is struggling to define himself as a mayor who understands the economic terrain. It may take years for Morse to be proven right or wrong on this. We believe he is right that big change is coming. The casinos proposed just minutes away in Springfield weigh in at nearly $1 billion. Hosting a casino may be better for Holyoke, all things told, than seeing one rise nearby.

That’s not the case for Northampton, where Morse’s about-face revives questions about what’s good and bad for the city’s downtown.

Of course, when it comes to casinos, no one really knows how gaming will change things. We think South Hadley Select Board Chairman John R. Hine is right to say things will be better than the most dire forecasts, and worse than the rosiest.

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