Why Can't Mayors Make Up Their Minds on Casinos?

The mayors of Everett and Holyoke did some major flip-flopping and backpedaling this week.

Things got a bit more interesting this week in the world of casino-ery in Massachusetts, thanks to a couple of mayors who can’t seem to make up their minds on whether a casino has a place in their town.

In Holyoke, mayor Alex Morse curiously announced on Thursday that he would no longer support the construction of a casino in his fair city. It’s a reversal of his previous statement in late November when he said that he would support the development of a casino. That statement marked still another reversal from his 2011 campaign platform—he was starkly anti-casinos—so, in a bit of roundabout way, he’s anti-casinos once again.

“It has become increasingly clear that pursuing this conversation will only be a distraction from my administration’s broader economic goals, ” Morse said on Thursday.

The casino uncertainty continued over in Everett as well. On Thursday, Mayor Carlo DeMaria stepped back from a previous statement in which Steve Wynn (aka the Sultan of the Strip, the Mogul of Macao) had entered into a lease to purchase property in town to plop down an epic casino. In a wordy follow-up, the mayor said:

“To clarify my remarks, it is my understanding that there are ongoing, exclusive discussions between the parties and a right of first refusal for the site. Developments continue to progress daily and I’m excited by these prospects.”

All of this begs the question: Why are these two towns even interested in having casinos at all? There’s a great deal of literature on both sides of the political aisle suggesting that behemoth casinos are some of the lowest common denominators in terms of economic development. The right-of-center Heartland Institute noted in a 2007 paper that casinos may not be the great Economic Hope that blustery politicians and boosters want them to be. Closer to home, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston published a memo in 2006 noting that “large casinos in heavily populated areas … have little secondary economic impact.” There have been dozens of reports that look at the subject (here, here, and here), and the recurring theme? Casinos don’t really create or grow wealth—unless you happen to be a Steve Wynn or some other type of casino kingpin conglomerate.

So maybe, just maybe, they’re looking to take the easy way out: It’s much easier to build a casino than it is to take on, you know, difficult issues like public education reform or investing in infrastructure.