Just around the corner

August 26, 2004

IN THE FORLORN West Virginia panhandle town of Weirton, two 11-year-olds, Dazja Gianessi and Maya Carey, have a chilling tale for Marylanders. The two kids woke up one day earlier this year to find they no longer had any place handy to buy ice cream. One nearby ice cream shop had already been turned into a slot machine parlor, and then a local Dairy Queen closed to make way for more slots.

The girls launched a petition drive - to bring ice cream back to their neighborhood - but they were railing against the tide in this beaten-down steel town of 21,000 residents: As recently described by Sun reporter Greg Garland, it seems as though nearly every one of its bars, clubs, coffee shops and cafes is offering slots. Weirton now has more than 80 places to play, one for every 250 of its residents.

That was the unintended outcome of a move two years ago to expand legal gambling in West Virginia, beyond slots at its racetracks, by allowing bars and social clubs to have five or 10 machines, respectively. With each machine taking in an average of $22,500 after state and local taxes, quite naturally everybody and his brother snagged a liquor license, sometimes ditching more family-friendly enterprises (such as selling ice cream) for the easy money.

In Maryland, such convenience gambling has not yet been at the forefront of the slots debate, only slots at racetracks and certain other venues. But Weirton provides a caution: If slots are legalized here, the battle then will immediately shift to staving off pressures for expanded gambling - longer hours of play, more games of chance and, ultimately, more sites.

In West Virginia, for example, slots at four horse and greyhound tracks have been operating since the mid-1990s. But bars clamored to be cut in, just as Maryland bar owners have lobbied (unsuccessfully, so far) to be included in any slots bill. So the Mountain State added convenience gambling - and the smart money figures that Maryland, once it approved slots anywhere, would eventually do the same.

Most notably, the West Virginia expansion took place even before the rise of new competitive pressures this year from Pennsylvania's turning itself into Las Vegas East by approving as many as 61,000 slot machines. To compete, there's now talk in West Virginia and Delaware of the inevitability of legalizing casino-type table games and sports betting. Indeed, slots haven't yet opened in Pennsylvania, and there already have been proposals to add table games.

For some, there will never be enough gambling. Government's thirst for revenue drives that as much as private operators; just consider the explosion in Maryland lottery games and revenues over the last 30 years. Yet, in West Virginia's case, having slots on every corner in towns such as Weirton hasn't prevented that state from maintaining among the highest state and local tax burdens in the nation. Not incidentally, it also now means West Virginia suffers from fewer places for families and, particularly, 11-year-olds.

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