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Jefferson Co. residents to vote on table games

November 28, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

o Lawmaker changes stand on table games

o Racetrack officials: Table games would bring jobs to Jefferson County

o Measuring impact part of table games equation

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- Al Britton is betting Jefferson County residents will vote "yes" on table games on Dec. 5. If they do, he predicts the first card will be flipped in June.

Britton, general manager of Charles Town Races & Slots, will know on the night of the vote whether table games will be added to the more than 5,000 slot machines already in place at the sprawling gambling mecca on the outskirts of Charles Town.

In 2007, county voters defeated table games by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent.

This time, Britton, 53, believes they have the support of the community, including the Charles Town Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and promotional groups such as the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, Jefferson County Development Authority, Jefferson County Convention and Visitors Bureau and Gateway New Economy Council.  

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Britton had said Penn National Gaming Inc., owners of Charles Town Races & Slots and the third largest gambling consortium in the country, was not going to push for a referendum until it had a good read on local support.

"We would not run another referendum unless it was loud and clear that the residents wanted it," he said.

For and against

Green signs, small and large, urging residents to vote for the games, are prevalent across Jefferson County.

Track officials have held public forums outlining the benefits they say the games will bring to the area. Brochures are everywhere.

On the other hand, there is www.Votenotablegames.org, a Web site created by a loosely organized cadre of opponents who have launched an effort to defeat the games. Heading the opposition is the Rev. Douglas Fraim, a quiet-spoken pastor of Bolivar (W.Va.) United Methodist Church.

"We're grass roots. There is no membership list," he said. "Speaking for myself, I'm against gambling on moral grounds. It's an addiction."

The Methodist Church is on record as opposing gambling.

Also on the opposition side is Janene Watson, a horse owner and breeder. She was executive director of the Charles Town Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) and her husband, Dick Watson, was president until both were voted out of office in 2003, she said.

"I'm now an honorary member, but I'm speaking for myself, not the HBPA," she said.

Britton has cautioned residents that table games are needed to offset competition from the introduction of slot machines, which have been approved in Maryland. One expected location is an-as-yet-unopened slots parlor in Cecil County in northeast Maryland near the Delaware state line owned by Penn National.

The fear among Charles Town Races & Slots officials is that Maryland slot parlors will compete for players from the Washington/Baltimore area who represent the lion's share of customers who travel to Charles Town.

"People won't drive by a slot parlor for another one that is an hour a way," said Karen M. Bailey, director of public affairs for Penn National.

The revenue

If the slots business drops, the Jefferson County Commission and the county's five municipalities -- Charles Town, Ranson, Harpers Ferry, Bolivar and Shepherdstown -- stand to lose some of the annual slot revenue windfalls that is their share of the more than $400 million the track takes in every year. Those shares currently come to about $4 million for the county, and $3 million shared by the towns, based on population.

If table games are approved, they would generate an additional $6.5 million in local tax revenue -- $4 million per year for the school board and $2.5 million for local governments, including half for the county commission and half for the five towns.

From 1998 to Oct. 31 of this year, the county has received nearly $35 million, and the five towns shared more than $24 million, according to track officials. So far this year, from July 1 to Oct. 31, the county received $1.8 million and the five towns about $900,000.

Britton said when table games are brought in, slot machine activity increases. He predicted there were be about a 10 percent hike in slots revenue at Charles Town with table games.

Opponents, however, say table games reduce slot machine play. When table games were introduced at Mountaineer Park -- a slots and thoroughbred race track in West Virginia's Northern Panhandle -- slot machine revenue dropped by about 13 percent.

Charles Town Races & Slots officials counter that slots revenue is down at Mountaineer Park due to stiff competition from casinos across the state line in Ohio, not because table games were introduced.

Racing purses

The horsemen, too, have shared in the largess from slot machines, which can operate only where there are horse or dog racing tracks.

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