The push to develop the Charles Town racetrack in Charles Town, W.Va., into a casino-horse racing complex is still very much alive despite the failure of lawmakers to pass a bill legalizing casino gambling in West Virginia this year.
A spokesman for Robert "Chuck" Chambers, speaker of the state's House of Delegates, said that earlier this week Chambers withdrew his bill to permit casinos because the measure lacked sufficient support in the state Senate.
But despite the move, Jerry Diddy, a vice president of the Showboat Development Co., which announced last week that it had purchased an option to buy the 250-acre track for $18 million contingent upon casino approval, said that the company will, if necessary, extend its option to purchase Charles Town to the end of December 1996.
The original option will run out April 30, but the contract allows for a 20-month extension. Showboat, he said, will make a stepped-up effort next year to get a casino bill passed, not only statewide but locally.
Voters in Jefferson County, where Charles Town is located, turned down a move to allow current owners to install video lottery machines at the track by 538 votes last fall.
But the measure can be placed on the ballot again in the fall of 1996 and Diddy said that Showboat is optimistic that by that time it can gain the county's support.
"It was a pretty tight election last time with just a 250-vote swing," Diddy said. "I think new management and owners at the track, who can present voters with a specific plan, can gain the support of the community."
Diddy added that a Showboat official will be dispatched to Charles Town this year to work with local horsemen and community leaders. "We're enthused that we can turn that track into a first-rate operation if we get it," Diddy said, adding that the company intends to keep horse racing as an integral part of the operation even if casino gaming is introduced.
Showboat operates casinos in Atlantic City, N.J., and Las Vegas and recently purchased a half-interest in Rockingham Park, a horse track in Salem, N.H.
"There are other tracks that we are also looking into," Diddy said.
Current Charles Town president Keith Wagner said he has told Showboat officials that they face a tough fight locally and statewide to win casino approval. Wagner said that next year (1996) "is an election year," adding that fact is going to make it "extra hard" to get casino legislation passed.
The attempted move by Showboat into Charles Town, which is about 90 minutes west of Baltimore, comes at a time when the Maryland General Assembly is also considering casino legislation.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening has said he will veto any measure this year that allows casinos in the state. However, Maryland lawmakers will hold hearings in Annapolis on Friday on proposed legislation that would permit up to a dozen riverboat casinos in Maryland waters.
Maryland track operators and horsemen plan to issue a "white paper" on Thursday detailing what they say would be the negative impact casinos would have is they are introduced into direct competition with existing racetracks.
Meanwhile, Charles Town, which had been closed since December, re-opened for simulcast action yesterday.
For the first time, the Maryland signal was simulcast at the West Virginia facility. Charles Town spokesman Paul Espinosa said that about 300 patrons turned out and wagered $20,623 on the Laurel card. He expected total handle to exceed $100,000, including action on races from Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita and Penn National.