W.Va. voters OK table games for Charles Town Races

AP News
|
Posted: Dec 05, 2009 10:31 PM

A measure to let the Charles Town Races & Slots install roulette wheels and craps tables alongside 5,000 slot machines passed Saturday as voters showed they were willing to gamble on the promise of 500 jobs and a positive ripple effect on the local economy.

A roar went up in a ballroom above the casino about two hours after the polls closed, and track officials declared victory. With all of Jefferson County's 32 precincts reporting, the unofficial vote was 6,279-4,343.

"We're thrilled. We're relieved. And Monday, we're going to start delivering on our promises," said John Finamore, a senior vice president of the thoroughbred track and casino's parent company, Pennsylvania-based Penn National Gaming Inc. "I can't wait to start filling those $45,000 jobs we promised."

Both sides had hoped for strong turnout, mobilizing many of the county's 33,000 registered voters throughout the day with full-page newspaper ads, Facebook pleas and personal phone calls.

Two years ago, voters rejected table games. Penn National believes many of its supporters took victory for granted.

A heavy snow fell Saturday, covering the countless campaign signs along yards and roads throughout picturesque Eastern Panhandle communities like Shepherdstown. Total turnout was slightly higher, at 11,072, compared with the 2007 vote.

"It doesn't matter," Finamore said. "We won. To win is the important thing, and to win by a wider margin than we lost last time speaks to a lot of things _ the campaign we ran, the needs, the revenues we'll produce. ... It's a great outcome."

Al Britton, general manager of the track, said the key differences this time were strong support from the community in motivating voters and the track's success in telling its story.

"Now we roll the sleeves up. We start the work recruiting and training and getting the facility ready to accept the games," he said. "We've got our work cut out for us, and I'm really looking forward to it."

The arguments against the games were the same as two years ago: Charles Town will become the next Atlantic City. Gamblers will get addicted faster. The new jobs won't be that great. But 52-year-old Bob Risch of Shepherdstown, who voted for the games, rejected them all.

"I really don't think it's going to get out of control like the opponents are saying," Risch said. "That's a little over the top.

"I've never been to the track but once," he added. "Just because I'm not a gambler doesn't mean I oppose it. I think people should have the choice, if they wish, to indulge."

While many voters have changed positions since 2007 because of a new revenue-distribution formula that benefits local governments and schools, a Vote No group complains the track and the state still get too much money. They say residents face the threat of higher taxes for law enforcement, emergency services, road construction "and social services to address the needs of the many new low-wage workers brought in to fill positions."

Betsy Smith, a 49-year-old customer service worker from Bolivar, was among those voting no.

The local college, Shepherd University, does a lot of good for the county, she said, and community leaders should focus on a future that includes partnerships with the school and high-tech companies.

"I think there are better ways to help the economy than gambling," she said. "It's a quick fix, and we need a long-term goal."

But the track's job-creation argument held sway for many, with unemployment at more than 6 percent and competition for slot players from Pennsylvania and Maryland morphing from threat to reality. The track and its supporters say it's only a matter of time before gamblers stop traveling, and Charles Town needs something to stay ahead of the game.

"I don't go to the racetrack, but if it helps the area and brings jobs in, I'm for it," said Josh Bayles, an unemployed 24-year-old from Harpers Ferry. "I know they're giving 500 jobs out, and I just had a daughter, so hopefully this can happen and I can give her a better life."

Cricky Schultz, whose family runs Schultz Realty, said home and property values have plummeted, many construction jobs have vanished, and there is no immediate promise of prosperity on the horizon, he said.

"This is a mechanism to create new jobs. This is a way to keep everything running," said Schultz. "... And think about the investors. We've sold 10 properties in the last 30 days _ all contingent on this passing."

Three other counties approved table games for their casinos the first time around _ Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort in Chester, Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack and Tri-State Racing and Gaming Center in Nitro.

While the other casinos launched poker first, Finamore said Charles Town will likely start with blackjack, craps and roulette.

Still, it will be at least six months gamblers can play the tables. He said it will take at least that long to hire and train dealers.

___

On the Web:

Jefferson County clerk: http://jeffersoncountyclerkwv.com/WestVirginiaLotteryTableGamesSpecialElection2009.html

Vote No: http://www.votenotablegames.org/

Vote Yes: http://www.yesforjeffersoncounty.com/