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Forum held on table games referendum

November 05, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- There can be no horse racing without slots and no slots without horse racing. One cannot survive without the other.

Such was the assessment made Thursday night by Al Britton, general manager of Charles Town Races & Slots, at a public forum on the upcoming Dec. 5 countywide referendum on whether to bring table games to the Charles Town slots mecca and thoroughbred race track.

Nearly 100 people attended the forum in the Shepherdstown Mens Club sponsored by the Jefferson County League of Women Voters. It was a quiet two-hour session led off with statements by a four member panel who spoke pro and con on the table games

Promoting the games were Britton and Mark Dyck, vice president of the Jefferson County Development Authority board of directors. He said he represented the Gateway New Economy Council at the forum.

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Presenting opposing views were Joe Brand and Janene Watson, members of Vote No Table Games, a grass roots group based in Charles Town.

Britton and Dyck, armed with an expansive 31-page study prepared by the Gateway Council, development authority and Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, had an edge disputing claims made by Watson and Brand, who mostly made their points extraneously.

Watson is a member of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, which runs thoroughbreds at the track. 

"We wanted to help with the (table games) bill while knowing full well that nothing good is in it for the horsemen," she said. "We wanted a seat at the table, to get their attention, to get our fair share."

Brand said there was no benefit for Jefferson County in bringing in table games, that the 500 new jobs they promised to add would take away jobs from other local businesses.

Britton said about 350 of the new positions would be dealers, most of whom would be hired locally and be trained on site through an arrangement with the Blue Ridge Community and Technical College.

Dealers would earn about $45,000 a year plus benefits.

Watson and Brand argued that table games would cause a decline in CTRS's slots revenue. Table games at three other West Virginia race tracks are cannibalizing slot revenues that bring money to the state, counties and affected municipalities. It would happen in Charles Town, too, he said.

"That's incorrect," said Britton, who predicted a 13 percent increase in slot business at the track if table games come in.

From a standpoint of logic, he said, why would CTRS put something in that would take away from its slots revenue.

CTRS needs table games to compete with new slot machine facilities coming into Maryland and Pennsylvania.

He said about 80 percent of Charles Town's gamblers come from the Washington/Baltimore metropolitan area and they would opt for closer Maryland slot machine facilities.

According to the Gateway Council's study, table games would entice bettors to continue to gamble in Charles Town.

It was generally agreed by the panelists that the gaming business is down across the country because of the economy and, specifically at the state's Northern Panhandle facilities, because of heavy competition from Pennsylvania and Ohio venues.

Britton said the HBPA, West virginia Breeders Association and West Virginia Breeders Classic, all horsemen groups, support the table games.

"Horse racing is vital to us. We need as much variety as we can get to protect what we have," he said.

The plan is to add 85 to 100 gaming tables for poker, blackjack, craps roulette and other games.

During the public question-and-answer period, a man who said he was a local businessman, said the purchase of the race track in 1987 by Penn National Gaming Inc. has helped his communications business to grow.

"Penn National has more than delivered what they promised over the last 12 years," he said.

Brand, answering a question from the audience, said table games won't increase tourism in the county. "They come to gamble, they stay there and they spend their money there," he said.

Brand said of Penn National; "They're smart businessmen. They make their money here, but it doesn't stay here except for local salaries."

Britton countered saying that 60 cents of every dollar CTRS grosses off the slot machines goes to the state, county and local governments in addition to the $34 million that goes to local salaries and benefits. 

Jefferson County Sheriff Bobby Shirley, who said he has no position on the referendum, was asked by Effie Kallas, forum moderator who was responding to a question from the audience, if the presence of CTRS increased the county's crime rate.

Shirley said when he was a new deputy in 1981, crime, even violent crime, was rampart in the race track barn area.

The numbers started going down after Penn National bought the track, he said. He credited the track's security force for the drop.

Calls for deputies to the track have been drastically reduced in the last three years, he said. "Now it's mostly for minor parking lot problems," he said.

Shirley said he checked with sheriffs in the counties with slots and horse racing and they, too, reported no increase in crime.

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