Track and casino turn a rust belt town green

Chester, W.Va., becomes a `destination resort' for gamblers

March 11, 2002|By Francis X. Clines | Francis X. Clines,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CHESTER, W.Va. - The sense of mortality can seem overwhelming along the depressed Ohio River Valley as Big Steel heads into the Big Sleep and hundreds of dish and pottery factories - the valley's old artisan glory - dwindle to a precious few.

But wait: A gray-haired retiree bused in from Pittsburgh has just hit the big payoff in nickels over at the video slots in a flourishing gambling oasis called Speakeasy.

Outside, beyond the gleeful bonging and beeping of the 2,000 slot machines, an ultramodern racetrack is being groomed for another night of thoroughbred betting by blue-collar commuters from Ohio searching for merciful odds along a riverfront dotted with snow patches and abandoned factories.

Downtown at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6450 even the veterans' long-illicit civic boon of modest gambling for money and charity has come out of the closet, legalized at last with new video slots ready for the growing market.

Somehow, Chester, W.Va., population 2,723, is becoming known as a "destination resort" for gamblers, with Tony Bennett, Kenny Rogers and other high-roller saloon singers booked to croon where the action is, down at the growing Mountaineer Race Track and Gaming Resort.

In northern panhandle

Tucked away at the crest of West Virginia's narrow northern panhandle, this tiny city is at the heart of an economic renaissance that is drawing 35,000 gamblers a week from nearby Pennsylvania and Ohio, where slot machine action is illegal. West Virginia is only a few miles wide at this point, but it beckons like El Dorado.

"We used to think gambling was a sin around here," said Shirley Barnhart, the city clerk, amused at all the virtue that Chester and surrounding communities are discovering in slot machines and parimutuel betting.

Ten years ago, Mountaineer was a failing backwater track known as Waterford Downs. The crowds were sparse and the purses laughable, as cheap claimers tried to outrun the abattoir. Its tired venue matched the region's rusting steel mills.

But then Edson Arneault, better known as Ted, arrived like a rainmaker and turned a small state experiment with limited video gambling at the track into a low-roller slice of Las Vegas that has created hundreds of jobs and fed tens of millions of dollars in fresh revenue into government coffers.

Tapping into a blue-collar market of 8 million people within a two-hour drive, Arneault's company is rated one of the nation's fastest growing by Forbes and Fortune, generating $218 million in revenues last year and $19 million in profits in an area rife with the symptoms of depression.

`It's entertainment'

"I call it a Joe Six-Pack crowd," Arneault said of his customers, who can bet modestly, from 5 cents to $5, at Mountaineer. "They're great. They don't have the whims and whimsy of big players in Vegas, and they tend to be shielded from tremendous changes in the economy and stock market. For them, it's entertainment."

Arneault managed to get the Legislature to allow a big slot-machine casino to be added to the racetrack, with a convention center, a spa and more than 300 hotel rooms. The gambling mecca has become a regional monopoly, 35 miles from Pittsburgh and 60 miles from Akron. It contributed more than $50 million to West Virginia last year, while local governments gained $3.5 million.

His company, the MTR Gaming Group, has put money back into the track and its purses and entered the larger lucrative world of off-track betting. In five years, Mountaineer's sales have increased an average of 43 percent and earnings 54 percent.

"Before this, all that we were known for was the World's Largest Teapot out on the highway," said Mayor Ken Morris, a steel worker, referring to Chester's lingering identity as the home of Fiesta Ware. Now gambling dwarfs the teapot, with more than a quarter of the city's $400,000 budget from Mountaineer revenue.

"And they just gave us a new police car, too," Morris said gratefully, noting that the state had become relaxed enough about gambling to permit video slots to other institutions, like the VFW hall. "Now it's legal, and everybody gets their cut."

The cut's ramifications are many. Not only is Dana Picciarelli, a member of the City Council, working for Mountaineer in the vault department, but Geoff Rovin, a substance abuse therapist in nearby Weirton, is busier, too. He is one of 50 counselors on call for gambling addicts who turn to the Problem Gamblers Help Network of West Virginia.

"Gamblers tend to think they have a cash-flow problem, not an addiction problem," said Mia Moran-Cooper, the Problem Gamblers program director, estimating that one in five gamblers has a problem.

Remembering old times

But like the health hazards of the dead steel mills, such is the cost of doing business. The traffic remains steady outside City Hall as the bridge from Ohio and the mountain road from Pennsylvania funnel fresh gamblers onto the streets of Chester in a beeline to the slots.

"I kind of wish we stayed back in the old economy," Barnhart, the city clerk, said wistfully, though hardly moralizing about the Chester renaissance. "It was nice when we were the pottery center of the U.S."

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