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W.Va. race track flew officials to slots hearing

September 21, 2000

W.Va. race track flew officials to slots hearing



By DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer, Charles Town


CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Charles Town Races arranged to have three local elected officials and a police chief flown to Charleston, W.Va., Tuesday in the company's private plane to testify in favor of a slot machine expansion before the state Lottery Commission.

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Ranson Mayor David Hamill, Charles Town Mayor Randy Hilton, Jefferson County Commissioner Dean Hockensmith and Charles Town Police Chief Mike Aldridge were flown to Charleston to testify even though the public comment period on the expansion had expired.

The trip brought criticism from a county resident who drove to Charleston to attend the meeting.

Fred Blackmer said there is nothing wrong with elected officials supporting private industry. But Blackmer said he does not feel it was right that the local officials were allowed to comment on the slot machine expansion at the track after the public comment period had ended.

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Blackmer said he also did not feel it was wise for the local officials to comment on the games, because the expansion has been a controversial issue among some county residents.

Opponents told the Lottery Commission during an Aug. 25 public hearing in Charles Town they are concerned about repeated requests to expand slot machine gambling at the track. They also voiced concerns over an increase in the county's crime rate since the slot machines were installed.

"In this particular case, intentionally or unintentionally, they may have crossed the line," Blackmer said Thursday.

The four public officials and race track officials said they did not see anything wrong with the situation.

Bill Bork Sr., president and chief executive officer of Penn National Gaming Inc., which owns the track, said he wanted the local officials to testify to correct statements local residents have made about the track, particularly regarding crime increases.

Despite the fact that the county's crime rate increased 19 percent between 1997 and 1998, Aldridge said he has found no proof that the track is causing any crime in the area.

"They keep saying all this stuff and it's not true. It's a courtroom thing. You have to prove it and we believe we did," said Bork.

Aldridge said he felt compelled to address the Lottery Commission on the crime issue because it has been brought up several times in the community. Aldridge said he took Penn National up on its offer to fly the local group to Charleston because it was better than driving.

"I think we took advantage of a situation. They didn't take advantage of us," Aldridge said.

"I certainly hope he doesn't think the plane ride was a perk," said Hamill.

Hamill said he already flies more than he wants to for business. Besides, it was not a smooth plane ride, Hamill said.

John Musgrave, executive director of the Lottery Commission, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Bork said the Lottery Commission was fair about allowing comments. Anyone, opponents or supporters, were allowed to speak if they did not get a chance to speak at the public hearing in Charles Town, Bork said.

The four public officials and Betty Martin, who represented the track's mutuel clerks, were flown from Martinsburg to Charleston on Penn National's airplane, Bork said.

Bork and track president Jim Buchanan did not travel on the plane, Bork said.

Hilton said he did not realize the public comment period had ended on the slot machine expansion. Hilton said he was asked to testify on behalf of the track, and he was glad to do it because of the positive effects the track has had on the community.

Charles Town has received $110,000 in video lottery revenues from the track and local motels have flourished from the increased tourism caused by the track, Hilton said.

"I just told them the truth from my perspective," Hilton said.

Blackmer, who is concerned about state-sponsored gambling, said he did not speak at the meeting Tuesday because he had already spoken at the public hearing in Charles Town.

The Lottery Commission voted during the meeting to allow the track to have 500 more slot machines, giving it the option of expanding to 2,000 machines.

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