Penn National Opposes Card Tables in W. Va.

From the Associated Press

The owner of the Charles Town Races & Slots doesn't like the idea of adding table games to West Virginia's four racetracks, and Gov. Bob Wise isn't ready to embrace the idea either.

Ted Arneault, president of Mountaineer Racetrack & Gaming Resort in Chester, last week said that adding table games would create hundreds of high-paying jobs, satisfy demands of slot machine players and boost business by at least 20 percent.

Arneault is starting to seek support for legislation that could be introduced in 2003 or 2004. The bill would let tracks offer live versions of poker, blackjack and other games that patrons now play on touch-screen machines.

But Wyomissing, Pa.-based Penn National Gaming, which owns Charles Town Races, said table games aren't necessary at the track, which is undergoing a $70 million expansion this summer.

"Charles Town continues to perform at record revenue levels, thus allowing us to make these types of investments in the facility and the region," said Peter M. Carlino, Penn National's chief executive officer. "Accordingly, we see no need for the approval of table games and do not support the proposal."

In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Wise said he's not interested in renewing legislative debate on such a controversial idea.

"I've had all the fun I want to handle for a while on gaming issues," Wise said.

The governor said it will take time to fully implement the 9,000 video lottery machines legalized last year. Until that happens, he said he's not focusing on allowing table games, but he would not say he would oppose the idea if it was pushed by others.

"Table games aren't on my agenda," Wise said. "Obviously, people want to advance it and anyone's free to do that. But that's not something I'm pushing."

Legislative leaders agree the timing isn't right now to garner legislative support for gambling expansion.

"I think that you can make an argument that the gray machines themselves were a stretch," Senate Finance Chairman Oshel Craigo, D-Putnam, told the Charleston Daily Mail. "The tables would be too far."

Gambling proponents, however, say table games are the next logical step for the racetracks and would keep West Virginia ahead of surrounding states that are likely to approve gambling soon.

Kentucky lawmakers recently killed a bill to allow slot machines at racetracks, but supporters pledge to revive it. In Pennsylvania and Maryland, similar bills are being floated, and both major-party candidates in Pennsylvania's November general election -- Democrat Edward G. Rendell and Republican Mike Fisher -- support slot machines.

If any of those states were to allow slots at tracks, West Virginia could lose part of its mainly out-of-state clientele.

Penn National owns 11 off-track betting facilities around Pennsylvania. The company is among those pushing for slot machines at the tracks, and Carlino called the timing of Arneault's announcement questionable.

Penn National's track in Grantsville, Pa., is two hours north of Charles Town and could become a competitor to the West Virginia tracks. Penn National also wants to put slots at The Downs at Pocono in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area.

"We believe the Pennsylvania slot proposal is just the ticket for central and northeastern Pennsylvania, and it is virtually identical to what we offer in Charles Town -- slots along with better racing and better amenities," Carlino said.

Arneault is upfront about his reason for wanting table games: Gamblers want them, and having them would insulate West Virginia's tracks from competition.

Studies suggest the games would increase patronage by about 20 percent, he said, "and the state would accordingly get 20 percent more revenue."

The state's four race tracks also include Tri-State Racetrack & Gaming Center in Nitro and Wheeling Downs.

Senate Minority Leader Vic Sprouse, R-Kanawha, said it's that competition argument that may win over lawmakers eventually.

"We're going to need (the racetracks) to be competitive with other states," Sprouse told the Daily Mail. "Our leadership has allowed the state to get into this quandary. We've made this bed, and now I'm afraid we're going to have to lay in it."