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Some residents uneasy over growing number of slots

August 08, 2000

Some residents uneasy over growing number of slots



By DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer, Charles Town


CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - A number of Jefferson County residents have expressed concern about the growing number of slot machines at the Charles Town Races, saying they did not believe gambling would expand as fast as it has at the thoroughbred track.

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Residents are also worried about a large influx of people who could come to Jefferson County to play the games. However, there are also several residents who like the idea of Jefferson County receiving money to help with the expanded services needed for the county's current growth spurt.

Last week, owners of the track told the West Virginia Lottery Commission they want to add another 500 slot machines to the track. If the lottery commission approves the 500 additional machines, that approval will give the track 2,000 slot machines and video lottery machines. That will mean Charles Town Races will have the largest number of gaming machines among West Virginia's four horse and dog tracks.

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The Lottery Commission will hold a public hearing at 9 a.m. on the request Aug. 25 in the Jefferson County meeting room at 108 E. Washington Street, Charles Town, W.Va. Following the hearing, the Lottery Commission will hold its regular meeting at the Charles Town Races at 11 a.m., according to Robin Graley, spokeswoman for the Lottery Commission.

Nancy Benjamin of Shepherdstown, W.Va., said she feels she has been misled by the track because she was led to believe that slot machines would be kept to a minimum at the track. Benjamin said she was under the assumption that horse racing would be the primary activity, but that does not seem to be the case, she said.

"My concern is not really to any additional income, but what gambling does to people," said Benjamin.

"They're just adding more and more and more," said Lynne Gruber of Summit Point, W.Va. "They made it look good to get it passed, and now look what they are doing. We're doomed."

When Penn National Gaming officials appeared before the Jefferson County Commissioners four years ago to make their pitch for taking over the track and offering video lottery, they did not promise to limit the machines to a certain number.

But Peter M. Carlino, chairman and chief executive officer of Penn National, guaranteed two things: that the management at the time would leave and that there would not be a casino established at Charles Town Races.

Penn National took over the track in 1996 after Jefferson County voters agreed to allow the track to have video lottery machines.

Eugenia Elseth of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., said she cannot believe the number of slot and video machines at the track. Elseth said she does not gamble, but she went to the track one night to see what it was like to play the machines.

"It made my heart sad seeing all those people throwing their money away," Elseth said. "It seems a waste. If you're smart, you know you're not going to win."

Phyllis Swartz of Middleway, W.Va., said she is concerned about the track's expansion of gambling because it goes against her Christian faith. Swartz is also worried that expanded gambling will change the makeup of the county.

"This is just a small community and it could bring a lot more traffic to our community. If people would just stop and think what they are doing ... ," Swartz said.

"They won't have any room for horses if they keep adding machines," added Swartz' husband, Richard.

"I don't approve of it," said Lewis Jenkins of Harpers Ferry. "In fact, I'm opposed to any type of gambling."

Connie Bedfield of Shepherdstown said she has mixed feelings about the slot machine expansion. She often draws a comparison with alcohol and gambling: both are fine if the user can control them.

"It's a wonderful entertainment for people who can go to be entertained and not be addicted by it. We partake from time to time," Bedfield said.

Bedfield said she has several friends who like to gamble, but she has another friend who is addicted, "which is a sad thing because it's real destructive. But I can't say I would ever sign a petition to oppose it," Bedfield said.

But for all the people who are worried about increased gambling at the track, there also seems to be an equal number of people who will support the additional machines.

Slot machine supporters point to increased revenues for Jefferson County and better purses for horsemen at the track as reasons for supporting the track's request for more machines. The track has generated at least $57.3 million since 1998, and the Jefferson County Commissioners have received about $2.3 million of that. The money has been used to pay for improvements to parks, ambulance service and scores of other projects.

Horse-racing purses have gone from about $21,000 a day to about $77,000 a day since video lottery started, according to Dick Watson, president of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

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