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Track to add 1,500 slots

October 27, 2005|by CANDICE BOSELY

CHARLES TOWN, W.VA.

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

After listening to community leaders in support of the plan and church officials opposed to it, the West Virginia Lottery Commission gave permission Wednesday to Charles Town Races & Slots to add another 1,500 slot machines.

Adding the machines - which enables the track to have a total of 6,000 - is part of an $80 million expansion that includes adding a second parking garage that should open by July 2006; building the 150-room Inn at Charles Town, likely to open in March 2007; and adding a new gambling hall.

About 40 people attended a public hearing on the issue Wednesday morning at the Bavarian Inn in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

Charles Town Mayor Peggy Smith, Ranson City Manager David Mills, Jefferson County Commissioner Rusty Morgan and past Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce President J. Frank Fargo were among those who spoke in favor of the expansion.

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"People are going to gamble, the poor, the rich. It doesn't matter. If they don't do it here, they're going to do it somewhere else," said Fargo, an insurance agent.

Del. John Overington, R-Berkeley, spoke against the plan.

Overington said he never would have imagined a discussion taking place on having 6,000 slot machines, given that eight years ago permission was granted for the track to bring in 400 video lottery terminals.

He said those machines were brought in to shore up the horse racing industry. Now that racing has been preserved, slots are being added for slots' sake, Overington said.

"What's the justification for this?" he asked. "Are we so desperate for jobs that we have to look for slot machine mechanics and cocktail waitresses?"

Edward Grove, a local pastor, said that slot machines are helping contribute to a "get rich quick" mind-set that is causing apathy in children.

The Rev. Al Clipp also spoke against gambling, which he described as a regressive tax that preys on the poor and uninformed.

The image of cash being reinvested into the community is an exception, not the rule. Most of the track's profits go out of state, he said.

Charles Town Races & Slots is owned by Pennsylvania-based Penn National Gaming Inc.

Charles Ellison, president of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, supported the expansion, saying that Charles Town Races & Slots has delivered everything it promised and has been a loyal neighbor.

Smith, the mayor of Charles Town, said the track has been a wonderful business partner.

"And that's what they are. A partner in this community," she said, adding that revenue from the track that is forwarded to Charles Town makes up around one-third of the city's budget.

James Tolbert, president of the West Virginia chapter of the NAACP and a Charles Town resident, said he approves the expansion, but for a different reason.

He said he was encouraged during a tour of the track to see a number of blacks and other minorities working there, and believes more slot machines will increase opportunities for them.

The Lottery Commission made its decision after reconvening the meeting at the racetrack.

Although previously approved for 4,500 machines, the track has 4,200 in operation. Some space is being taken up by the ongoing expansion of a buffet.

John V. Finamore, senior vice president of regional operations for Penn National, said the new machines will be added incrementally, in batches of 500 to 800.

Charles Town's last slot-machine expansion was approved in March 2004.

State law does not limit the number of slots a track can have. The Racetrack Video Lottery Act says expansions may be approved as long as the Lottery Commission deems more machines "in the best interest of the tracks, the commission and the citizens of West Virginia."

So far, the commission has yet to deny a request.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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