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Officials, community members sound off on table games

February 23, 2007|by JENNIFER FITCH

CHARLES TOWN, W.VA. - Charles Town Races & Slots has typically been a good neighbor, so its quest to add casino table games should be supported, according to the general sentiment at a public forum Thursday.

About 30 people attended the public forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Jefferson County, and most were rather familiar and satisfied with the facility's operations. Several were affiliated with the track.

Adding table games like blackjack and roulette to West Virginia tracks' offerings is necessary to keep them competitive, especially now that Pennsylvania is licensing slots parlors, said John V. Finamore, senior vice president of regional operations for Penn National Gaming Inc., which owns Charles Town Races & Slots.

"It is our belief ... that the great economic story of Charles Town and the other three racetracks in West Virginia will change dramatically" with Pennsylvania's move, Finamore said. Fifteen percent of Charles Town Races & Slots' business comes from Pennsylvania residents, he said.

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The West Virginia House of Delegates has passed a bill that gives voters in the four tracks' counties the ability to approve the addition of table games. The state Senate is modifying that legislation and could kick it back to the House.

The House's bill would take 35 percent of the tables' gross revenue and divide it among several groups, including 79 percent to the state, 5 percent to the host county and 5 percent to the host municipalities.

House Bill 2718 has met criticism for not designating money for schools, but Jefferson County Commissioner Jim Surkamp said he, at least, would push the county to put part of its cut into escrow for them.

Surkamp said table games are "being overrated as a new source of revenue," but Finamore argued that the revenue might be surprising. While Finamore said he is not permitted to estimate the revenue from table games, he pointed to the video lottery machines that provided $4.5 million to the county for the last fiscal year.

Finamore reminded the public that the legislation is not legalizing table games, but rather giving voters the option of legalizing them. Those voters then, under the House bill, would have an opportunity to rid the facility of the table games after five years have passed.

Table games would be phased into operations, Finamore said. The first phase would bring 75 tables and about 500 new jobs, he said.

In addition to Finamore and Surkamp, the forum's panel consisted of Jefferson County Sheriff Everett "Ed" Boober and Pastor Van Marsceau from Charles Town's Fellowship Bible Church.

Boober admitted he was apprehensive when slot gambling first came to Charles Town but has discovered a "good partnership." He believes table games would only be an extension of a "safe working environment."

Charles Town Races & Slots has "done a great job contributing to the community," Marsceau said, but he has concerns about a slippery slope for a growing number of gambling addicts.

"It bothers me that a culture, society or community embraces a concept that a generation or two ago was objected to wholeheartedly," Marsceau said.

The typical customer at Charles Town Races & Slots is a 55-year-old woman who visits the property for 2 1/2 hours. She loses $80 and visits seven times a year, according to Finamore.

"The majority of these typical customers look at it as entertainment, a night out," Finamore said.

The table games would bring a younger demographic, he said.

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