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Morse angers many supporters with reversal on casinos

Date: 11/28/2012

By G. Michael Dobbs

HOLYOKE — Mayor Alex Morse's press conference announcing that he is now willing to consider a casino proposal for Holyoke was punctuated Monday morning with shouts of "liar" and "coward" from angry people who have supported his bid for mayor based on his anti-casino stance.

Morse said in a prepared statement that he has only considered a casino proposal and then only since September when businessman Eric Suher came to him with a plan to use the former Mountain Park for a destination resort casino.

Just earlier this fall, Morse wrote an anti-casino opinion for the latest edition of "Commonwealth" magazine.

"For me in an ideal world, we would not have a casino within our boundaries. My views on casinos have not changed and neither has my belief that casino is unequivocally not our saving grace. The only thing that has changed is my weighing of that option with the alternative, which would be the locating of a box-style casino right on our doorstep," he said.

"Map out driving direction on your favorite GPS: Springfield's casino would be 15 minutes from City Hall; one at Mountain Park would be 12. We share one metropolitan area and I cannot assume that our city boundaries will provide us any protection from a casino down the road," Morse continued.

The announcement caught many of Morse's key supporters by surprise, according to John Epstein, part of the group that supported Morse because he was against a casino. Morse has told this reporter in the past that those anti-casino votes pushed him ahead of then mayor Elaine Pluta.

Epstein said that he was the city had been "inoculated" against casinos by electing an anti-casino mayor. Epstein added that if Morse had second thoughts, he should have come to the group and explained his change of mind "instead of ambushing us."

Morse explained none of the Springfield casino developers have not spoken to him about any mitigation of the social and economic ills that might be created by a casino and that considering a casino is a "shifting of strategies on how to deal with the maladies of gaming and the reality that one such destination will be in our region and will very likely be at our doorstep — even if we do nothing."

Morse couldn't offer any details, though, on the city's process at this point. He did say that any gaming developer has until Jan. 15, 2013 to pay the state's required fee of $400,000, but he said he did not know whether or not the city will have a fee or how the approval process leading up to a host agreement negotiations and, ultimately, a city-wide referendum, will be conducted.

He added the process would be determined within the next few weeks. David Panagore, the former economic development officer for the city of Springfield, has been hired to assist in working out the details of how the city will determine a casino developer.

City Council President Kevin Jourdain said he has filed an order to create a special committee of the council to obtain information about the proposals. Although he did not say whether he was for or against a casino, Jourdain said he needs to see a proposal that would benefit and protect the city's taxpayers.

Although Morse mentioned Suher in his speech several times, he offered no details about Suher's proposal. Suher was at the press event, but did not speak to the press. Outside of City Hall, protesters handed out flyers about Suher's anti-union business practices at his Iron Horse Entertainment.

One person critical of casinos at the press conference questioned Morse about Suher's reported partners in the proposed casino, Len and Mark Wolman of the Waterford Group, which have been associated with several failed gaming efforts in Rhode Island and New York. Morse said again "no deal has been signed."

"This has to be a transparent decision," the mayor added.

He emphasized that Suher had no "inside track" in consideration, but he never mentioned the plan to put a casino at Wyckoff Country Club that had ended when he was elected.

However, Morse did say that he has had talks with "elected area officials" about the importance of protecting Northampton's entertainment community — much of it owned by Suher — from any casino.

Morse refused to say what was discussed.

Narkewicz released a statement posted on Facebook by Northampton City Council President Bill Dwight, "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," Narkewicz wrote.

Dwight added, "Mayor Alex Morse has asserted in his press conference that he has discussed the prospect of a casino in Holyoke with Mayor David Narkewicz. I know this to be categorically untrue."

When asked about Paper City Development LLC and their plans for Wyckoff, Morse said, "I think it's important to look at all the proposals." He added he had met with Paper City principals in January and said it was going to be a "casino in a box" and a key flaw with the plan was "no traffic mitigation whatsoever."

Former Mayor Elaine Pluta challenged Morse on the spot saying the proposal was "far from being a box" and noted the detailed traffic mitigation plan that had been done by the group.

When asked, Morse did not acknowledge that he received an email from Joseph Lashinger, a managing partner with Paper City over the weekend, sent once interviews Morse had on his decision were published by the Boston Globe and The Republican.

Lashinger wrote, "We read with great interest your thoughts on a destination resort casino for Holyoke yesterday. We recognize, understand and sincerely appreciate the evolution of your thinking on this issue. Needless to say, we are eager to be a part of the dialogue in the days ahead.As such, the purpose of this letter is to respectfully request a meeting with you as soon as possible to review the attributes of what we have long believed to be the premier location for resort casino development not only in the city and region, but the entire Commonwealth. We hope to review with you the plans, studies and professional opinions of our engineers and other experts that we had limited opportunity to discuss with you earlier this year.

"Further, under the guidelines of the Massachusetts Gaming Statute, we also seek to immediately commence negotiations on a Host Community Agreement for Holyoke, thereby enabling a referendum on the casino issue to occur sometime next year. We absolutely concur with you when you say, 'I owe it to the city to let the voters decide on a project that would move the city forward. . .' From the beginning, we have advocated for the public's right to decide and look forward to providing facts and data about Wyckoff in a very transparent way as an essential part of the public discourse," Lashinger added.

 Lashinger detailed the work his group has already done to address traffic issues.

 "In our quest to develop a destination resort casino at Wyckoff, we have spent more than $1.5 million — a sizable portion of which has been directed to understanding the site itself and what would be required in the way of a transportation infrastructure plan with multiple objectives: first and foremost, minimize traffic impacts in the neighborhoods closest to Wyckoff; achieve a greater public purpose by literally remaking the Route 141 corridor and resolving "decades-old" traffic flow problems at the junction of Interstate 91 and Route 141; create a traffic plan that would take into account the daily trips originating south of the city of Holyoke and headed north up I-91 the primary thoroughfare for upwards of 60 percent of expected casino patrons according to a marketing analysis we commissioned by one of the most respected consultants in the gaming industry, PKF Colliers; [and] create a plan designed to promote efficiency and convenience for resort casino patrons."

Lashinger also wrote, "Lastly, in today's Boston Globe story, the amphitheater owner claims that his designated site consists of roughly 70 acres. That is not completely accurate. The total amount of his holdings in the area may be 70 acres, but approximately 19 of those acres sit on the east side of I-91 — on the complete opposite side of the interstate. The Castle Hill Apartments alone consist of 7.7 acres. To set the record straight — to the best of our knowledge — the total amount of acreage at the amphitheater site is only 52.3 acres with very little frontage on I-91 (unless, of course, he has acquired any additional adjacent property from the Holyoke Water Works, Holyoke Boys Club, Friends of the Mt. Tom Reservation, or the National Fish and Wildlife Service since July 2011).

 "Respectfully, Mayor, your statement in both The Republican and Boston Globe: "Hard Rock's plan was a casino in a box..." is just not an accurate recollection of what was presented to you when we met last February — this being said of the premier entertainment company in the world, not to mention the only investment grade gaming company in America. This statement is disingenuous and misleading," he continued.