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Despite protests, panel OKs more slots at W.Va. track

September 29, 1999

Carolyn VogesBy DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer, Charles Town

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer




CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - A standing-room-only crowd turned out at a public hearing Wednesday to comment on Charles Town Races' proposal to add another 500 slot machines at the track.

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Proponents and opponents of the machines testified for about two hours before the West Virginia Lottery Commission voted unanimously to allow the track to install the additional machines, saying they would be a boon for the thoroughbred track.

The new machines, which will take the track's total number of video lottery and slot machines from 935 to 1,435, will be installed in an indoor paddock.

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Opponents said they fear the county is headed down a dangerous road if the track is allowed to steadily add slot machines.

Track supporters asked people in attendance to remember the bleak times the track faced before slot machines were allowed.

"Let's remember this track closed down. These streets were empty," NFL Hall of Famer and track supporter Sam Huff told the Lottery Commission during a hearing at the county meeting room. "No one wanted to come here."

Track officials decided in December 1994 to close for three months due to declining revenues.

Now, under the management of Penn National Gaming Inc., the track's gross revenues are topping $20 million, tourists are coming to the Eastern Panhandle and purses for horsemen have increased by up to $70,000 a day, supporters said.

"Let's help them rather than stopping them," said Huff, one of about 70 people who spoke at the hearing.

Opponents pleaded with the Lottery Commission to slow the expansion of gambling at the track, saying not enough data has been gathered to determine if video lottery and slot machines have been good for the county.

Over the years, opponents have expressed fear that crime would rise in the county if the games were available at the track.

Mike Withem, a local minister opposed to the expansion, said it would be irresponsible for the Lottery Commission to decide now whether the track should have more slot machines because the state's crime statistics for 1998, the first year the track had video lottery machines, are not yet available.

"We haven't had time to collect the data to see what the expansion will do," said Carolyn Voges, who is concerned how expanded gambling will affect families.

Opponents said they fear low-income families will gamble in an effort to make up for money shortages.

After the hearing, the Lottery Commission held its regular business meeting at the track, during which it approved the additional slot machines.

Track president James Buchanan said the track needs the additional slot machines because it is "maxed out." So many patrons come to the track on the weekends there often aren't enough machines for everybody, Buchanan said.

He estimated the additional machines will help boost total revenues to $52 million a year and increase purses.

Before the Lottery Commission can approve a slot machine expansion, it must be convinced that the expansion would be good for the race track and the state lottery.

It is "pretty clear" that Charles Town's proposed expansion meets those criteria, said lottery commission Chairman Virgil Thompson.

The track initially received permission to install video lottery machines at the track, but the Legislature later allowed tracks in the state to convert the machines to slot, or "coin drop" machines.

The track gradually will convert its video lottery machines to slot machines, although a small number of video lottery machines will be retained for patrons who prefer video poker, track officials said.

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