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1,000 more slots OK'd for Charles Town Races

April 01, 2004|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

CHARLES TOWN, W.VA. - Despite outcries from ministers and a state lawmaker that gambling is wrecking families and people's personal finances, an additional 1,000 slot machines were approved for Charles Town Races & Slots on Wednesday.

With little discussion, the state Lottery Commission unanimously approved the track's request, which will allow the Jefferson County thoroughbred track to have a total of 4,500 slot machines.

The track has expanded tremendously over the years, with nearly $200 million in construction projects, but there are still "wall-to-wall people" at the facility, track President Jim Buchanan has said.

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That means that many patrons have to wait in line to play certain kinds of slot machines, Buchanan said.

Buchanan told the Lottery Commission Wednesday that the need for the additional 1,000 machines is "obviously due to customer demand."

Several area ministers and a state lawmaker spoke against the additional slot machines, and recounted instances in which gambling has gotten out of control for some people, affecting their families and their ability to support themselves.

The ministers and Del. John Overington, R-Berkeley, made their statements during a public hearing held at 9 a.m. at the Comfort Suites along W.Va. 9 in Martinsburg, W.Va.

The Lottery Commission approved the 1,000 slot machines during its regular meeting, which was held at 11 a.m. at the track.

Overington read parts of a Morning Herald story about a six-month jail sentence that was handed down to a former Washington County tourism official after he admitted stealing $15,000 from his agency to feed a gambling addiction.

The tourism official, Ben Hart, had a statement read to a Washington County Circuit Court judge during his sentencing on March 24 in which he said he had a "latent addiction" for much of his life and the problem manifested itself when he discovered slot machines in Charles Town.

"I feel we should be ashamed of ourselves (over) what we are doing to working people," Overington told the Lottery Commission.

Ernest Lyles, who has worked as a minister and helped lead youth education programs in the area, said he has seen people break into tears as they related stories about their spouses being addicted to gambling.

"I must admit as a pastor I feel helpless because there is nothing we can do. At some point, we must say to the gambling industry, 'enough is enough,'" Lyles said.

Ed Grove, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Martinsburg, said some people who do not have the basic resources to support themselves look to gambling in an attempt to get ahead. The outcome is they often go "deeper and deeper in trouble," Grove said.

Some speakers supported the track, including Ranson (W.Va.) Police Chief Bill Roper.

There was fear that allowing slot machines at the track would increase crime, but Roper said there has been no big crime jump. He said the most substantial change he has seen is an increase in traffic in Ranson.

Jefferson County Fire and Rescue Association representative Henry Christie, who also is a chaplain, said the track has been generous with donations to local fire departments and has helped them acquire equipment.

Lottery Commission members made little comment about the track's request before unanimously approving it. One commission member read a list of names of people who sent letters to the Lottery Commission in support of the additional 1,000 slot machines.

The letter writers included Mary Via, executive director of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce; Charles Town Mayor Randy Hilton; and Ranson Mayor David Hamill, among others.

In his presentation to the Lottery Commission, Buchanan said employment has steadily increased at the track, which now employs about 1,312 people. A $25 million expansion of the track is in the works, and will result in another 70 jobs, he said.

Horse racing purses have risen to $200,000 a day, "putting us on the map in the mid-Atlantic racing industry," Buchanan said.

Local governments get 2 percent of the track's revenues, which gives Jefferson County about $2.8 million a year and local towns about $1.9 million a year, Buchanan said.

"We've come a long way since 1997 when we started. We think we've done that responsibly," Buchanan said.

Of the 1,000 additional slot machines approved, 300 probably will be distributed among existing gaming areas this year, Buchanan has said. The remaining machines would be part of long-term planning.

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