Struggling W.Va. town bets its soul on slots

Proliferation: A law that let bar owners operate electronic gambling devices has led to large profits - and to questions about the law's wisdom.

August 22, 2004|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

WEIRTON, W.Va. - To say there are video slot parlors on almost every corner of this economically depressed steel town of 21,000 people is probably an understatement. The city has 82 of them and counting. More are opening almost every day.

The reason is simple: A business in a prime location can generate as much as $750,000 a year from just five of the electronic gambling devices, according to the West Virginia Lottery. Even after paying nearly half that sum in state and local taxes and fees, it's a handsome return.

Everyone in Weirton, it seems, is trying to get a piece of the action.

Slip into the back room at the local convenience store on Freedom Way, and you can pump money into the slots there. A block up the road is Bada Bing's, a blue, two-story house with a cash register in the kitchen, an ATM in the dining room and five brightly lighted, blinking video slot machines in what was once somebody's living room.

A dozen more video slot parlors with such names as Mugsy's Cafe, Wiseguys and Jumpin' Jimmy's line Main Street. And then there's the Donut Connection - with coffee and doughnuts and video slots on the side - or the nearby bakery that serves slots along with its pies, cakes and cookies.

You can even feed the machines while waiting for a haircut at the Above the Collar hair salon or savoring an ice cream cone at the 12th Street Cafe & Ice Cream Parlor.

"I think it took the city by surprise," the Rev. Robert D. Tate of the Tri-State Church of God said about the rapid proliferation of video gambling devices since West Virginia decided to legalize the machines for bars and social service clubs beginning in January 2002.

"Once it gets started, it's kind of like an avalanche," Tate said. "It just keeps going. ... It's amazing. It's overwhelming. It's ludicrous."

Tate and others say that West Virginia's experience should be a cautionary tale to any state that is considering opening the door to casino-style gambling. Once it's in, they say, proliferation is almost inevitable.

Maryland legislators have been debating the past two years whether to legalize video gambling devices and are expected to take up the issue again in January.

Although proposals have focused on licensing about a half-dozen huge slots casinos at horse racing tracks and other locations, Maryland bar owners and social service organizations say it isn't fair to exclude small businesses and clubs. They have lobbied, unsuccessfully, to be included.

Lobbying for slots

West Virginia's bars and clubs waged a lobbying campaign after that state approved video slots at four horse and greyhound racing tracks in the mid-1990s. The tracks were rapidly transformed into hugely profitable slots casinos, each filled with thousands of machines.

Bar owners won Gov. Bob Wise's support for legislation to allow each of their establishments to have up to five machines. Social service clubs were allowed to have 10 each.

The law limited the total allowable in the smaller venues to 9,000 machines, a figure the state is approaching. The machines are monitored by a central computer at the West Virginia Lottery.

Rush for licenses

But what Wise billed as "West Virginia's Limited Video Lottery Program" had an impact few here anticipated.

The law triggered a rush by all types of businesses to apply for liquor licenses - especially in border towns such as Weirton in West Virginia's northern panhandle, close to adjacent states where casino-style gambling wasn't permitted.

Weirton sits just across the Ohio River from Steubenville, Ohio, and is within easy driving distance of Youngstown and suburban Pittsburgh. Slots aren't legal in Ohio; Pennsylvania recently passed a bill to allow slots at a dozen locations - mostly at horse racing tracks - but they aren't in operation yet.

The number of liquor licenses issued for Brooke and Hancock counties - the two counties that Weirton straddles - has nearly doubled since West Virginia's limited video lottery law took effect in 2002, according to West Virginia's Alcohol Beverage Control Commission.

The agency reported issuing 100 alcohol licenses in those two counties in 2001. By August 2004, the number of licenses had mushroomed to 175 - and 19 more applications are pending.

Even the Dairy Queen in Weirton was closed and converted to a slots parlor - prompting a public protest this summer by two 11-year-old girls that generated a flurry of publicity and put an uncomfortable spotlight on city and state leaders.

Toning down the names

The number of establishments that set up shop and advertised themselves with such names as Lil Vegas, Triple 7s, Cha Ching Cafe and Jackpot Jimmy's provoked such an outcry that Wise issued an executive order banning video lottery businesses "from using names and/or symbols associated with gambling."

So, new code words have emerged in Weirton to denote that a business has the machines. There is Barney's Bakery Place & More, Legends Cafe & More, Bada Boo's Cigar Pub & More and any number of similarly named establishments.

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