Track gets green light for more slots

March 01, 2002|BY DAVE McMILLION

The West Virginia Lottery Commission voted unanimously Thursday to allow Charles Town Races to install an additional 1,500 slot machines in its gaming room, bringing the total number of machines at the track to 3,500.

The Lottery Commission also approved a pilot project under which West Virginia tracks can increase the amount of payout on some slot machines from a maximum of 92 percent to a maximum of 95 percent.

The payout increase is an attempt to stave off future gambling competition from neighboring Maryland and Pennsylvania, racing officials said.

There was little opposition to the track's request to add another 1,500 slot machines during a public hearing at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center in Shepherdstown Thursday morning.

The Lottery Commission approved the request at a meeting at the track later in the day.

Fred Blackmer, who is running for the 58th House of Delegates seat this year, told the Lottery Commission that Jefferson County needs another high school, not more slot machines.


Before the hearing, Blackmer handed out a sheet that said the county "doesn't need the additional traffic. We need better and safer roads."

"Jefferson County's poorest residents don't need more gambling. They need tax relief," Blackmer said.

Lottery Commission Chairman Virgil Thompson said there could be an endless debate about whether gambling is good for the state.

"I think that issue has already been resolved by the Legislature. That's not the issue that's on the table today," said Thompson.

Gary Tucker of Shepherdstown, W.Va., said he supports the track's request for more machines, but believes the county should get a bigger chunk of the money from the games. If housing developers are not willing to voluntarily pay impact fees, the state should let the county have more slot machine revenue to pay for the county's needs, Tucker said.

Jefferson County gets 2 percent of the track's net revenue, which was $131 million last fiscal year.

Some police chiefs, county residents, elected officials and people involved in horse racing expressed support for more slot machines.

Charles Town Council member Russell Miller said he visits the track's slot machine area occasionally and often three or four people are waiting in line behind some of the machines waiting their turn to play.

"Every machine is taken. It's amazing to see this," said Miller.

Because of fears that gambling would lead to higher rates of alcoholism, spousal abuse and prostitution, Charles Town Police Chief Mike Aldridge said he closely monitored the situation.

Aldridge said there have been no significant increases in crime and there is "nothing you can relate to the track (that) draws in criminals."

There has been an increasing number of traffic and car accidents in town, Aldridge said, but said he doesn't if that's because of an increasing number of track patrons or related to the natural growth of the area.

Slot machine revenue helps support horse racing at the track, and a "renaissance in racing" at the track means more open space in Jefferson County will be reserved for horse breeding in the county, said those associated with agriculture and horse breeding.

Hay and feed suppliers are doing a brisk business and the county's tourism business is flourishing, supporters of the track said.

Ranson City Manager David Mills said local towns have the "best situation in the world" because track patrons come to town, spend money at the track and go home.

"They don't use your schools and they don't tear up the environment," said Mills.

The 1,500 additional slot machines will go into a new 58-foot tall gaming facility at the track. The gaming area together with a new 1,500 space parking building represents a $60 million expansion that has already started at the track. A $30 million hotel is planned.

The new gaming area, which will be called "Slot City," will have a food court with five or six food outlets and will have New Orleans-type decor, said track President Jim Buchanan.

The Lottery Commission will allow Charles Town and the state's three other race tracks to increase the rate of their payback on their $5 bet slot machines. The tracks will also be able to select 100 machines other than the $5 slot machines to increase the payback from up to 92 percent to up to 95 percent.

The payback increase will be in effect for a year to determine if it is successful.

A 95 percent payback means that on average, a slot machine will pay back 95 percent of the money played on a machine in a "cycle," which is about 2,000 hand pulls, said Buchanan.

The hope is that the increased payback will draw customers and offset new or expanded gambling operations in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Kentucky, racing officials said.

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