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Measuring impact part of table games equation

November 29, 2009|By KATE S. ALEXANDER

o Jefferson Co. residents to vote on table games

o Lawmaker changes stand on table games

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

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- Two years after three West Virginia counties voted to allow table games at area casinos, community leaders say their fears of crime and addiction were all for naught, unlike hopes for jobs and revenue.

Voters in Hancock, Ohio, and Kanawha counties passed a measure allowing table games in the summer of 2007 after months of public debate.

Jefferson County voters rejected table games for Charles Town Races & Slots, but will be called upon Saturday to vote again on the issue.

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Measuring the impact of table games has proved challenging for the communities.

The "true" effects of expanding gambling will take more than two years to manifest, said Kevin McCoy, president of the West Virginia Family Foundation, a nonprofit group opposed to gambling in all forms.

"We have yet to see what will come with these games," he said.

In Nitro, W.Va., home of the Tri-State Racetrack & Gaming Center, adding table games barely caused a ripple in the community, said Mayor Russell Casto.

"You would never know there are table games out there," he said.

In the Northern Panhandle, home of Mountaineer Casino Racetrack & Resort in Chester, W.Va., and Wheeling (W.Va.) Island Hotel Casino Racetrack, the benefits of expanded gaming have so far outweighed the costs, said state Rep. Orphy Klempa, D-Ohio.

"We added more gaming and we did not see more crime; the Mafia did not move in. All those fears were for naught," he said. "What we added were jobs for the people who live and depend on this area."

Jobs were key for Klempa and his colleague, state Rep. Tal Hutchins, D-Ohio, when the referendum was put to vote.

John Cavacini Jr., president of the West Virginia Racing Association, said a total of 1,500 jobs were added statewide at the three casinos in 2007.

The additional jobs included food, beverage and other service-oriented positions, he said.

Currently, 900 to 1,000 people are assigned to table games operations at the three casinos, Cavacini said.

Since the three casinos have been in the state for many years, Klempa said, the gambling addictions promised by McCoy and his organization were an issue long before the vote in 2007.

McCoy said he believes more crime will come when the economy turns, and said he frequently hears stories of gambling addicts who were lured in by table games, only to lose their life savings and, at times, the will to live.

"These are the horrible effects people will remember," he said. "They will not remember what is going on right now."

McCoy was unable to provide statistics or data on gambling addiction in West Virginia.

For all the debate surrounding the table games, Casto said the downturned economy has balanced the scales on most issues.

Casto said the buzz in Nitro is that Tri-State casino is struggling due to the economy and recent county legislation.

The amended Kanawha County Clean Indoor Air Act of July 2008, which prohibits smoking in casinos and bars, is the thorn in Tri-State's side, he said.

"Business is down and they (owners of the racetrack) say it is down due to the smoking ban," he said.

Casto said he was told that Tri-State's revenue is down $15 million, of which $6 million is blamed on the ban. Tri-State Casino representatives declined to comment.

Constantly competing with gaming in Pennsylvania, Wheeling Island has failed to maintain all of the promised jobs, due to economic conditions, Klempa said.

Amy Burbidge, director of player development for Wheeling Island, said that despite the economy, the casino still has more jobs today than it did in 2007.

"We have 275 associates we did not have before table games were approved," she said.

Casino spokeswoman Tamara Pettit refused to comment on the economic conditions at Mountaineer Casino.

While state gaming revenue has taken a hit from the economy, Klempa, a member of the House Finance Committee, said table games have boosted overall gaming dollars.

"The money is still coming in from the casinos," he said.

State gaming funds are only icing on the cake for the state, paying for programs like the PROMISE Scholarship, he said. None of the gaming dollars go to fund the general budget.

Despite the current economy, what these struggling West Virginia towns have experienced since adding table games in 2007 are more jobs that pay an average of $30,000 per year with benefits, Klempa said.

"Out here, we are always in need of good, solid jobs," he said. "When you create industry in a community, whatever that might be, the moral values of the community will always shine through that industry's dark side."

Next in the series:



o Not all horsemen at Charles Town Races & Slots agree with the way proposed table game revenues should be distributed to them.

o The question of whether voters should approve table games at Charles Town Races & Slots during Saturday's referendum drew mixed answers from 10 people who talked about the issue.

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