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Bingo spending declines

August 28, 1999|By LAURA ERNDE

Led by declines in bingo playing, entertainment spending in Washington County has dropped for the fourth straight year.

People spent about $9.5 million on taxable entertainment in Washington County during the budget year ending June 30, according to the Maryland Comptroller of the Treasury. The comptroller's office collects the state admissions and amusement tax and returns the revenues to each county.

Bingo has long been the most popular form of taxable entertainment in the county.

Bingo players spent $4.8 million on the game in 1997 and $3.4 million in 1998.

Despite its decline to $3 million this past year, bingo accounted for nearly one-third of entertainment spending.

"I just believe people are getting off of bingo and doing other things with their money and other things with their families," said Barbara Dunlap, owner of Bingo Island at 920 W. Washington St. in Hagerstown.

Bingo Island, the largest of three for-profit bingo halls in the county, has seen its business drop off by 50 percent in the last two years, Dunlap said.

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Based on conversations she has had with other bingo operators across the country, it's not just a local trend.

One theory about bingo's downturn locally is that its followers are instead playing slot machines, which made their debut at Charles Town Races in September 1997, said Ben Hart, executive director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Even nonprofit bingo halls have seen the game's popularity wane.

"It's not what it once was," said Jim Kimble, president of The Volunteer Fire Co. of Halfway Inc.

Kimble speculated that older and most loyal players are dying off.

But Dunlap said Bingo Island is not just for the blue-haired crowd.

Most of the players at Bingo Island are between the ages of 30 and 50 and are attracted by the cash prizes.

"I think it's a good place to meet and talk with people they haven't seen for years and years," she said.

And bingo is still king, holding the number one spot on the entertainment spending list followed by movies.

Number three in popularity was sales from entertainment. When a band or comedy act plays at a bar, for example, a tax is collected on the drinks sold, said Michael Golden, spokesman for the comptroller's office.

Auto and motorcycle racing remained a steady fourth place.

Overall entertainment spending in Washington County has been dropping since 1996, when it hit a high of $12.2 million.

Hart said he couldn't explain the trend.

"It certainly doesn't make sense because there are a lot more discretionary dollars," he said.

Despite the drop in spending, two sports have seen gains since 1993.

Skating broke through the top 10 in 1997, the year the Hagerstown Ice & Sports Complex opened in Hagerstown, and has steadily increased ever since.

Although the rink has been struggling financially, Executive Director Jamie Shyda was encouraged.

"It shows, certainly, the viability of it as an up and coming sport in our area. We're hopeful the participation levels will keep going up," Shyda said.

The boating business in the county also had a good year in 1999. People spent $430,000 on raft, kayak, canoe and tubing rides, the state tax records show.

Most of that came from River & Trail Outfitters in Knoxville, which has operated tours on the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers since 1972, said manager Lee Baihly.

The sport peaks in the summer, but more and more enthusiasts are donning wet suits and hitting the water year-round, he said.

"I think we're part of the whole movement of going out and doing it, rather than being a spectator," he said.

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