HOLYOKE (AP) - Reversing course for the second time in three weeks, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse declared Thursday that he is halting consideration of casinos in the city and would not negotiate with two potential developers.
The 23-year-old Morse, who defeated an incumbent mayor last year after running on a strong anti-casino platform, stunned backers in November when he announced a new "strategy" to entertain gambling proposals.
"Since that announcement, I have come to recognize the flaws of such strategy," Morse said in a statement.
"It has become increasingly clear that pursuing this conversation will only be a distraction from my administration's broader economic goals, and I regret not realizing this earlier."
The mayor also said the city would return $25,000 payments that had been hastily sought from potential casino developers to help pay for the costs of a review process by the city.
The payments were made by Eric Suher, owner of a former amusement park on Mount Tom, and Paper City Development, which has pursued a casino at Wyckoff Country Club.
Suher said in a statement Thursday that he had just received word of Morse's decision, had not talked with the mayor and would not comment immediately. A partner in Paper City did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
The state's year-old expanded gambling law allows for three resort casinos, including one in western Massachusetts.
Morse told The Associated Press on Thursday that he wasn't flip-flopping on the casino issue, because in the end he was staying true to his word to not bring one to town.
"I have to be able to come to work every morning and believe in the work I'm doing. And I didn't believe in it," the 23-year-old mayor said.
He said his thought in late November was that casinos deserved a second look because of the potential money that could have been invested in Holyoke's downtown. He also expressed concern about the possible impact on city businesses of a casino set to open in nearby Springfield.
But the mayor said he heard a "resounding voice against the casinos" in his discussions with residents during the last few weeks. He said he received about 200 phone calls and emails, along with comments on Facebook and Twitter.
"What I've heard today from folks is they appreciate my honesty and they like a leader who can admit they were wrong," he said.
"Major decisions like these are not simple. They're not black or white. There's a lot of gray in the middle."
Lynn Horan, whose group, Citizens for a Better Holyoke, opposed a casino, said she's hearing "incredible jubilation" at the news.
"We're very pleased that he has again re-addressed this issue, and we'll see where it goes from here," she said.
Horan said the group plans to meet with Morse next week and hopes to find more constructive ways to revitalize the city.
John Epstein, a casino opponent who supported Morse in last year's election, had said last month that he felt "betrayed" when the mayor announced he would negotiate with casino developers. On Thursday, Epstein expressed relief at Morse's latest change of heart.
"It's obviously a great thing that he has reversed," Epstein said. "I did talk with him and he's been telling me the opposition to his move was pretty significant everywhere he went.