Busloads each day feeling the pull of West Virginia slots

Maryland needn't look far to see the pros and cons of machines at racetracks

October 13, 2002|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - They still race thoroughbreds at the historic Charles Town horse track. But that isn't what draws thousands of visitors every day to this rural town in the West Virginia panhandle.

They come to bet on slots in a facility that has been transformed into a glitzy, Las Vegas-style casino. People arrive by car and bus from Baltimore, the Washington suburbs and elsewhere in the region to try their luck.

Last year, they lost $190 million playing slots here. That sum, called the "take," is the money left after players are paid any winnings. The track's owners and others in the racing industry get more than half of that - and the rest goes to state and local government.

As Maryland officials consider whether to legalize slots at four state tracks, fans and critics of West Virginia's gambling enterprise have plenty to offer to the debate.

Supporters say that slots have been a boon to Jefferson County, where Charles Town Races & Slots is located. With 1,100 full- and part-time workers, the business has become the county's largest employer.

"There is a great spinoff effect in terms of people coming into the area, patronizing our hotels, restaurants and other businesses," said Jane Peters, director of the county's economic development agency.

"The increase in traffic is the only real negative. Everything else is pretty positive," she said.

But gambling opponents such as the Rev. Michael A. Withem of First Baptist Church of Ranson say county leaders see the racetrack casino through rose-colored glasses because of the money it generates.

"They don't want to look at the negative part of it," said Withem. "Gambling does nothing but destroy lives and marriages. It's not worth any amount of money that it brings in."

As an example of the problems, he pointed to recent articles in a local newspaper detailing the arrest of two women accused of embezzling $24,000 from a Charles Town restaurant where they worked. They told police they spent the money gambling on slots.

Maryland has not fully engaged in a public discussion of the pros and cons of slot machines, but key legislative leaders would like to allow them at tracks. Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. says he'll push to get slots - and the money they would bring to the state's treasury - if he is elected governor. Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is a staunch opponent.

If Maryland legalizes slots, the state's tracks could end up looking a lot like Charles Town Races & Slots. And what Charles Town looks like is a casino, much like those in Las Vegas and Atlantic City - minus table games such as blackjack and craps.

The owner, Penn National Gaming of Wyomissing, Pa., operates horse tracks in Pennsylvania and casinos on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and in Louisiana. It has poured $160 million into the Charles Town site, according to company officials.

The money paid for a 1,500-car parking garage, a huge slots emporium that adjoins the track's grandstand and other amenities. A total of 2,567 slot machines and video gambling devices are packed into a space the size of a large Wal-Mart store.

Cocktail waitresses in skimpy outfits circle the carpeted floors, serving free drinks to slot players whose faces are bathed in the glow of the machines' colorful lights. The air is filled with the chink-chink-chink of quarters dropping into metal hoppers as machines hit for payoffs. Nearby, the heavier, $1 slot tokens drop with a louder thunk-thunk-thunk.

It's a busy place.

Mostly out-of-staters

"We get about 25,000 people a day on a Saturday and about half that on weekdays," says Roger R. Ramey, vice president of public affairs for the track.

The track's research indicates most of the players come from out of state - 36 percent from Virginia, 34 percent from Maryland, 17 percent from Pennsylvania and 6 percent from Washington and other areas, Ramey said. The other 7 percent are West Virginia residents.

The visitors leave behind a lot of cash. Charles Town generates more than twice as much revenue for Penn National as the company gets from its full-scale casino in Bay St. Louis, Miss., according to financial reports the publicly traded company files with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The money from slots at Charles Town eclipses by far that made from horses. Races produced $7.8 million in gross revenue for the track's owners last year, compared with gross revenue of $81.3 million from slots. The figures come from tabulations made after winnings are paid to bettors and after gaming taxes.

More slots next year

Business has been so brisk that Penn National plans to add 1,000 slot machines and video gambling devices next year, Ramey said. The track - one of four with slots in West Virginia - received legislative approval this year to have 3,500 machines.

The gaming devices include traditional reel-spinning slots and electronic touch-screen games. Some feature graphics with cartoon figures that resemble board games for children.

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