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Track, county officials put table games back on the table

June 20, 2006|by DAVE McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Jefferson County residents would have the chance to vote on casino table games at Charles Town Races & Slots, but if approved, they would have to wait a minimum of five years before they could vote again on the games' fate at the track, according to a proposal discussed Monday.

Track officials maintain they need to have casino table games to stay ahead of gambling competition in other states.

A bill was considered in the Legislature earlier this year to allow casino table games at the state's four racetracks, but it was criticized by lawmakers and other officials because it proposed to take away the rights of Jefferson County voters to control gaming at the track through elections.

Currently, Jefferson County voters have the ability to put the track's right to have slot machines on the ballot.

According to the table games bill considered earlier this year, county voters could never have a referendum again on slot machines or table games if they approved table games in a county election.

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Del. Bob Tabb, D-Jefferson, has said it is important for county voters to be able to call for a referendum on gaming at the track in case there ever is an attempt to eliminate horse racing there.

Track officials emphasized their commitment to preserving horse racing during a commission meeting last month. They defended the referendum language in the most recent table games bill as a way to protect their investment in the games, but said they would consider different provisions for recall elections.

John Finamore, senior vice president of regional operations for Penn National Gaming Inc., which owns the local thoroughbred track, met with the Jefferson County Commission at the Charles Town Library Monday to talk about issues related to casino table games.

Finamore said the track owners would consider supporting casino table games legislation that would allow county voters to put the games up for a vote after five years if they are initially approved.

The five-year period would give the track time to recoup its investment in the games if they were turned down, Finamore said.

After the five-year period, voters would be able to call for gaming referendums like they currently do, Finamore said.

"That certainly increases my comfort level," said Commissioner Dale Manuel.

Finamore emphasized that Charles Town officials have yet to discuss the referendum language with the state's three other racetracks and that would have to be done "to see if there is an appetite for that."

Finamore said he expects casino table games to be considered again in the next session of the Legislature.

Manuel said he also believes that if casino table games are allowed in the state, Jefferson County Schools should get a share of funding from the games at the local track to help deal with funding constraints.

Finamore said track officials would be willing to discuss that with Gov. Joe Manchin's staff.

About $250 million in improvements have been made to the track since Penn National Gaming Inc. took it over and track officials have said they would add another $200 million in improvements if table games are added to the facility.

If table games are allowed at the track, a 500-room hotel would be built at the property, as well as at least 25,000 square feet in conference meeting space, track officials have said. On Monday, Finamore used a presentation to show the commission how the changes would be made.

Last week, the track razed the old Shenandoah Downs grandstand, and although it is too early to say exactly what the site will be used for, Finamore said Monday that the property could be used for more hotel, retail and meeting space.

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