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Voices: Argument/Counterpoint

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A casino would hurt, not help, Holyoke’s economic redevelopment efforts

BY: Alex B. Morse
Issue: Fall 2012

since the state of Massachusetts legalized casino gambling, many cities throughout the state have begun competing for the opportunity to place a casino within their borders. Indeed, many in my hometown have advocated for a casino in Holyoke, calling it a potential boon to our struggling economy. Proponents of a casino here suggest that this industry will be the city’s saving grace. They frame this issue as a cure-all for our city’s economic struggles. After doing my own research, I came to a much different conclusion: A casino in Holyoke would not aid in our economic rebirth, but would ultimately undermine the effort.

Despite the fact that this industry produces nothing, sells nothing, and siphons money from the local economy and into the hands of distant owners, the casino sympathizers think a Holyoke casino is the city’s best bet for economic rebirth. Where are the examples of cities that have been reborn thanks to a casino? Which cities have made the successful transformation from an industrial-based to a knowledge-based economy thanks to a resort powered by gambling? What proponents of a casino will not say is a belief that lies at the heart of their argument: that the city of Holyoke cannot do better than a casino.

A casino in Holyoke would not lay the foundation for the type of sustainable economic growth we need. To be sure, a casino could well have some short-term benefits, including increased tax revenue. But to champion casino economics in Holyoke would be to accept a shortsighted, narrow solution, when a more holistic and long-term approach is warranted.

Studies of the effects of casino gambling on local economies have demonstrated that the alleged benefits of casinos have been exaggerated, while the costs have been understated. Legalized gambling does produce marginal increases in tax revenue and employment. But the amount of consumer spending that shifts from local businesses to legalized gambling has very damaging effects on the local economy.

A casino does not create wealth; it transfers it. Regions benefit from casino gambling when people from outside the region come to spend money there. But there is no evidence that this would be the case at a Holyoke site. A casino in Holyoke would not be a destination gambling site, but a convenience gambling site. It would thus serve primarily to remove money from the local economy and put it in the hands of casino owners who do not live here. This is how casinos work—by design. Because of this, I do not believe a casino would be useful even as part of a holistic approach. We have the resources and the drive to create an economy that will benefit all, and for generations to come. When it comes to a casino, we do not need to settle.

I ran for mayor because I wanted our city to dream bigger. While casino proponents see a massive casino complex sitting atop the natural splendor of our Mount Tom range as progress, I see something different. I see Holyoke poised to become one of the most desirable innovation and technology centers in the US. I see Holyoke as the epicenter for the next generation of American ingenuity, competitiveness, and growth.

We have multiple advantages in our favor to compete in what is now a global economy. Our location allows us to serve two of the largest markets in the United States in Boston and New York City. We have a world-class fiber-optic communications infrastructure. We have a solid manufacturing base and the cheap, green energy sources that attract this industry in a time where our country is pulling together to see a renewed era of manufacturing. And we are surrounded by dozens of quality, higher-education institutions that serve more than 100,000 college students

and every year churn out thousands of graduates who become productive members of the new knowledge-based economy.

All of these advantages played a role in locating a new, high-tech computing center in Holyoke. Two of the best universities in the world, Harvard and MIT, are investing here in the computing center, and this move is not lost on other investors. The supercomputing power we’re hosting is already drawing interest from companies and universities that can use this technology.

The great shortcoming of our region is that we see so many college graduates abandon Holyoke and the Pioneer Valley in favor of other metropolitan areas that offer the types of jobs and urban environments they seek. We need to use the computing center as leverage to create the entrepreneurial environment which will expand our technology, manufacturing, and innovation-based economy. That is precisely the premise of the Holyoke Innovation District Task Force, which the city co-chairs. This group of government, academic, and private-sector stakeholders from Holyoke, region, and state are working together to have our city serve as a catalyst and epicenter of innovation in the Pioneer Valley, while also strengthening other economic and job opportunities related to manufacturing and commerce.

Furthermore, my administration has aggressively sought to foster the creative energy of our residents that will fuel our creative sector businesses and organizations. Part of this approach was the creation of a new position for a creative economy coordinator. This position, which I proposed and the City Council approved, will promote businesses and jobs in Holyoke related to art, culture, design, architecture, marketing, hospitality, and tourism as a way to leverage private investment and create a vibrant urban downtown through creative place-making strategies.

With such promising work ahead of us, we do not have time to entertain the fanciful notion that a casino is our economic salvation. Going after a casino is a gamble in and of itself, one that would tie up valuable city resources, jeopardizing our progress at this critical juncture in our economic transformation.

Now is a time for Holyoke to renew its highest ideals and remember its better history. In the 1860s, our Holyoke forebears recognized opportunity in the soon-to-explode industry of paper manufacturing, and they pursued it aggressively.  The result of their foresight can be seen all around us—in our magnificent buildings and our stately homes. By harnessing the economic potential of the paper industry, Holyoke became one of the wealthiest communities in Massachusetts. When I look at Holyoke today, I see what our Holyoke ancestors saw when they created the Paper City of the World: a city of limitless possibility.

The innovators and entrepreneurs Holyoke needs to attract do not want to live and work in gutted shells of cities; they want to invest and live in vibrant communities that allow businesses to flourish. I oppose a casino in Holyoke because I have not given up on Holyoke. We need to attract job creators and jobs in productive industries, support our budding creative community, and guide the biggest investors to our city. Furthermore, we want to encourage industries that will make Holyoke a place to which our young people want to return.

The majority of the jobs available at a new casino complex would be low-skill and low pay. Is this really a way to entice our young people to return to our community after college? If we want to cultivate the talents and creative energy of our young people, we need something firmer and more sustainable.

We need to do better and we will do better—and the first step is rejecting shortsightedness in favor of a more sustainable approach. 

Alex B. Morse is the mayor of Holyoke.  

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Banned In Holyoke
Says on 10.23.2012
at 12:02 AM
If hyperbole were a marketable commodity then Holyoke's representative in Commonwealth Magazine's casino debate would be the hands-down winner. However, its seems that while that young man is up dreaming on his magic, knowledge-based mountain – which, incidentally, no one ever actually had the slightest intention of building on top of, at least in this century – Springfield's civic leader has his feet firmly planted in economic reality. Dream big, yes, but economic revitalization has to start with something more concrete, and while Springfield understands that, it seems the closest Holyoke can come to anything substantive are the computing center – which by design offers extremely little in the way of new employment, and neither requires or even encourages the physical presence of those interested in utilizing it – and the creation of a new city job, the arts coordinator, which taxpayers can ill afford.

In reality, few are asserting that casinos should be the end-all and be-all of a city's or region's economic development planning, and indeed that model has frequently failed in the past. Instead what is being considered here, as Springfield's mayor so aptly describes, is a single casino with a regional monopoly, which must very thoroughly adapt itself to the local community, rather than the other way around, and with steps taken to ensure that it's as complimentary as possible, rather than competitive, with existing businesses. While it would be preferable if it were not associated with the vice of gambling, investments of the size being proposed here are few and far between, and the potential for employment and tax revenue benefits should far outweigh any aversion to that vice; besides, in helping to improve overall economic conditions, it might actually alleviate some of the still less desirable vices already being practiced in the cities. If poverty is in fact a vice, then perhaps the only worse vice would be refusing to do something about it when given such an ample opportunity, just because it offends one's delicate sensibilities.

While of course there should be jobs for young urban professionals just graduating from college (and not just in City Hall), neither is there any shame in working-class employment. Although it is true that the great industrial city of Holyoke was begun in the mid-nineteenth by the investment of a few visionary capitalists, that investment was multiplied many times over through the efforts of just such workers. And while much of the manufacturing industry has now been exported, the quite sizable service industry – which obviously won't be going anywhere soon, and would benefit most from a casino – goes unmentioned.

In summary, as Springfield moves forward in a realistic way to take advantage of the potential benefits of a casino development, Holyoke remains up on its magic mountain with its head stuck in the visionary clouds. Yet, although at this point it seems Holyoke has lost the debate, as well as any chance of hosting a casino, that does not mean its resilient people are about to give up.
Says on 10.12.2012
at 11:43 PM
I applaud Mayor Morse and his decision to stand his ground against the temptation of placing a casino in Holyoke. As he says, the short term attractions of a casino development are strong, but the results are never as rosy as depicted and have far-reaching and detrimental consequences that he describes. My family just moved here from Philadelphia, where a casino opened three years ago in our waterfront neighborhood of Fishtown. I have seen both the 'sales' phase - where backers promise a resort-scale casino with lots of side development, entertainment, jobs, and revenue, and the 'built' phase - where they never get past the 'interim' windowless box that seeks only locals for convenience gambling and never produces the promised revenue, jobs, or other benefits. Philly is 1.4 million people and already has a thriving tourist and downtown employment center, yet the single casino built there has underperformed on every measure from opening day. No promised hotel, no Cirque de Soleil, just a slots box with an interior hot dog stand that has stopped all new development around it despite the area's rapid gentrification, save a pawn shop that tried opening across the street. Unlike Springfield's leadership, Mayor Morse sees better for Holyoke.
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