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Charles Town seeks 1,000 more slots

March 04, 2004|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Saying the track is often "wall-to-wall people" playing slot machines, owners of Charles Town Races & Slots are asking for permission from the state to add another 1,000 slot machines to help meet increased demand for the games.

Even though the thoroughbred track now has 3,500 slot machines, some patrons still have to wait to play certain types of machines, track president Jim Buchanan said Wednesday.

Saturday nights can get very busy at the track, and it is not unusual for the track's 1,500-space parking garage to become full on weekends, Buchanan said.

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"It's wall-to-wall people. We're pretty maxed out," Buchanan said.

West Virginia's four racetracks have become major tourism destinations and are expected to generate at least $170.1 million in revenue for state government this year.

Charles Town alone drew some 4 million patrons in 2003, said John Finamore, senior vice president of regional operations for the track's parent, Penn National Gaming Inc.

On a typical weekend, 25,000 to 27,000 people pass through the property, he said.

Track owners have applied to the state Lottery Commission to add 1,000 slot machines, Buchanan said. The Lottery Commission has scheduled a March 31 public hearing in Martinsburg, W.Va., on the request. The hearing will be at the Comfort Suites on W.Va. 9 east near the Internal Revenue Service computing center.

The hearing will be followed by a regular meeting of the commission at the track later that morning.

Buchanan said he expects the commission to take action on the track's request that day.

Last month when Buchanan was explaining plans for a $25 million expansion to the track, the addition of 600 slot machines was possible as part of the new area, but only in the long term.

In some respects, that is still the plan, Buchanan said.

Of the 1,000 additional machines the track is requesting, about 300 would be distributed among two existing gaming areas, Buchanan said. The remaining machines would be part of the longer-term planning, Buchanan said.

The track's corporate office has approved the purchase of the 300 slot machines for the existing gaming areas but has not approved the purchase of the remaining machines, Buchanan said.

"We'll just have to see what happens with Maryland and the market. It's not like were going to dump 1,000 machines on the floor," Buchanan said.

Neighboring Pennsylvania and Maryland have been considering slot machine legislation.

If the additional 1,000 slot machines are approved by the Lottery Commission, the 300 slot machines probably would be gradually added to the existing gaming areas this year, Buchanan said.

The West Virginia Racing Commission, as well as the Jefferson County Planning Commission, has approved the $25 million expansion announced by track officials last month.

The expansion will include enlarging the parking garage to create 1,000 more parking spaces. The expansion also includes construction of new office space which is mostly related to horse racing.

The new construction will include a new steward's office, racing secretary office, a Horsemens Benevolent and Protective Association office and human resources office, Buchanan has said.

Racing fans have been flocking to the track since Penn National Gaming took over the facility in 1997 and began a transformation of the facility.

Penn National Gaming has completed nearly $200 million in renovations and expansions to the track since it took over the oval.

Finamore said it's impossible to guess how long the boom will last.

"However, we still feel the market is very under-penetrated, and there is still a lot of growth potential," he said. "How long it will go? I don't have a crystal ball that's very accurate, but I do know that we continue to see a lot of first-time visitors."

About 95 percent of Charles Town gamblers are from outside West Virginia. At least 35 percent of them are from Maryland.

Finamore said Charles Town patrons are loyal, and the track has no immediate fear of losing customers to other states should they approve gambling.

"They may go and visit a new place, but they tend to go back to where they're comfortable, where they've had good experiences and where they've won," he said. "Having said that, we're not going to sit still. We're going to defend our business."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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