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Slots owners face costly sign deadline

December 19, 2003|by RICHARD F. BELISLE

waynesboro@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - C.B. "Butch" Pennington spent $54,000 on signs for the two clubs he owns in Martinsburg - signs that will have to come down by Jan. 1 because their wording refers to gambling.

Pennington, owner of the Lucky Spin Tavern at 1832 Winchester Ave. and the Royal Casino & Lounge at 1300 Edwin Miller Blvd., said his establishments and others in Berkeley County and throughout West Virginia have been targeted by Gov. Bob Wise to meet a New Year's Day deadline or face the risk of being shut down.

Wise is launching a series of newspaper ads this weekend to remind bar owners to remove their outdoor signs and stop calling their clubs casinos. He signed an executive order in October that prohibits bars, clubs and fraternal groups from using casino and other gambling-related words or images when advertising video poker games approved under the Limited Video Lottery Act.

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If exterior signage and outdoor advertising is not removed by Jan. 1, retailers' terminals will be shut down immediately and licenses will be suspended. The Lottery Commission can shut down the machines electronically from Charleston.

"The deadline for compliance is just two weeks away, and I want to make every effort to ensure that retailers and operators are aware of this order," Wise said Thursday.

State law allows 9,000 video poker machines in bars, private clubs and other adult settings in a move aimed at eradicating similar "gray machines" that had operated for years without regulation or taxation.

Wise's list of banned words and images includes any possible reference to playing cards, gambling games, slot machine symbols or poker hands. Other banned wording includes known casino destinations such as Las Vegas or Atlantic City, N.J., or any names of casinos, such as the MGM Grand or the Tropicana.

Pennington said he and other local bar owners had talked about seeking a court injunction to stop Wise's order.

"We decided against it. The Legislature would just pass a new law that would take effect in July," he said.

Pennington said he spent $36,000 for the sign on his Royal Casino and Lounge, which opened in July. The sign for the Lucky Spin Club cost $18,000, he said.

"I sent in a battery of names to the state and they rejected them all," he said. Among them were Pen's Bar and Grill, to replace Lucky Spin, and Royal Lounge and R.C. Lounge.

Pennington and other bar owners said the names of their establishments should be left as is through grandfather clauses.

Among Berkeley County clubs targeted, in addition to Pennington's, are Aces Bar and Grill in Inwood, W.Va., and Club Shamrock at 2357 Williamsport Pike (U.S. 11 North.)

Club Shamrock has been in operation for 15 years, said Ed Duncan, its owner for the last five years. The place burned down and was reopened in August, he said.

Duncan said he paid a customer $1,000 for his sign. He installed it three weeks ago. He also said he cannot use the name on promotional materials such as T-shirts and hats.

"I don't know what I'm going to call it," Duncan said. "They're changing history and dictating what we can do."

Nelson "Ace" Clark, 74, a retired jet fighter pilot, owns Aces Bar and Grill.

He said he's owned about 10 clubs in Berkeley County over the years. Among them were the Top Brass Club, which he opened in 1971. Others were Poor Boys, The 50 Yard Club, Cadillac and Lakewood. He said he opened Aces four years ago.

He said his sign cost $1,700. He plans to tape over his name and leave the rest of the sign as is.

As of Monday, 6,118 video machines were operating in 1,326 establishments across West Virginia.

Sixteen state inspectors will be working on New Year's Day to monitor compliance with Wise's order.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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