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Track official pleads case for table games

February 10, 2006|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Saying Charles Town Races & Slots could be a "world-class destination" if it had casino table games, a track official told the Jefferson County Commission on Thursday that owners of the oval would pump another $150 million in improvements into the facility if it had table games.

John Finamore, senior vice president of regional operations for Penn National Gaming Inc., which owns the local thoroughbred track, made the comments during a Jefferson County Commission meeting Thursday.

Finamore said he agreed to speak at the meeting because County Commission President Greg Corliss invited him there to help the commission form an opinion on table games, which include blackjack and roulette.

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Some members of the commission said they would support table games for the track, but said they wanted assurances that horse racing would be protected at the track.

The commission ended up voting to oppose the table games bill (House Bill 4314) pending in the Legislature but discussed having a work session to reach common ground among the parties involved.

Commissioners suggested that a work session involving Eastern Panhandle lawmakers, the commission and horse breeders and other track employees could be held to discuss the issues.

But it was unclear if the group would have time to work out any agreement on a table games bill before the current session of the Legislature ends.

The bill in the Legislature that would allow casino table games at the track has been criticized by lawmakers and other officials because it takes away the rights of Jefferson County residents to control gaming through elections.

Currently, Jefferson County voters have the ability to put the track's right to have slot machines on the ballot for an up-or-down vote, said Del. Bob Tabb, D-Jefferson.

The table games bill would not allow county voters to have a referendum again on slot machines or table games if they approved table games in a county election, Tabb said.

Tabb said county voters should always be able to call for a referendum on gaming at the track in case there is an ever an attempt to eliminate horse racing at the track.

Finamore defended the bill's referendum language Thursday, saying the track needs to protect the improvements that have been made there. Other track supporters have said it is not fair for a business to invest in its operations with the possibility of voters taking away the business's operations. Finamore said about $250 million in improvements have been made to the track since Penn National Inc. took it over, and another $80 million in improvements are planned for the track.

If the track is able to get table games, it will start another $150 million in improvements that will include a 500-room hotel, a third parking garage and more restaurant and gaming space, Finamore said.

The track is already planning to build a 150-room hotel on its property.

With Pennsylvania ready to license slot machines and Maryland looking at expanded gambling options, Charles Town must constantly improve its gambling offerings to stay competitive, Finamore said.

"We have a tremendous head start and we don't want to give it up," Finamore said.

If the track had table games, it could add another 700 jobs, many of which would be card dealers, Finamore said.

Dealers would start out earning about $35,000 a year plus benefits, Finamore said.

"These are not low-paying jobs and they ramp up to significantly more," Finamore said.

"It would be very successful in our estimation. What's not to like about this proposal?" he said.

Corliss said he understands how important the track is to the community and said he supported slot machines for the track as a way to save horse racing.

He said the table games bill is "painful" to read because it is so complex. Corliss told Finamore someone also needs to put language in the bill to protect horse racing.

Commission member Jane Tabb said she wants a guarantee that there will be year-round horse racing at Charles Town.

"I can't support this bill," Tabb said.

"The people of this county are totally dedicated to horse racing," said Commission member Rusty Morgan.

Finamore said the possibility of the track eliminating horse racing is a "silly notion" and said he bristles when he hears such comments. Finamore said Penn National's roots are in horse racing and the company recently purchased two horse tracks in Maine and Ohio.

Even if the track wanted to eliminate horse racing, it would have to do it through Legislative action, and Finamore said the proposal would never get any support.

Del. Bob Tabb said Thursday House of Delegate members were being polled to determine if there is enough votes to support House bill 4314. Tabb said a decision could be made today whether to continue considering the bill.

"My feeling is it doesn't have the votes," said Tabb, adding that the problems with the referendum language is enough to kill it.

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