- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 6, 2009

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. | If a referendum to allow table games at the Charles Town Races & Slots passes, it will still be at least six months before gamblers can play blackjack.

It would take at least that long to hire and train dealers, says John Finamore, a senior vice president for the parent company, Pennsylvania-based Penn National Gaming Inc. And while West Virginia’s other three casinos launched poker first, Mr. Finamore says Charles Town will likely start with blackjack, craps and roulette.

Voters had until Saturday night to weigh in on whether the Eastern Panhandle thoroughbred track can put new games alongside some 5,000 slot machines. More than 10 percent of Jefferson County’s 30,000 registered voters have already cast early ballots. Both sides were hoping for a strong turnout.

Two years ago, voters rejected table games by 56 percent to 44 percent. Penn National believes many of its supporters took victory for granted and stayed home to enjoy a warm summer day.

A heavy snow fell Saturday, but voting was steady at the Shepherdstown Volunteer Fire Department.

“I’ve never been to the track but once,” said Bob Risch, 52, who voted for the games. “Just because I’m not a gambler doesn’t mean I oppose it. I think people should have the choice, if they wish, to indulge.”

The arguments against the games now are the same as in 2007. Opponents believe Charles Town will become the next Atlantic City or Las Vegas and gamblers will get addicted faster. They also say the jobs created aren’t that great.

Mr. Risch disagreed.

“I really don’t think it’s going to get out of control like the opponents are saying,” he said. “That’s a little over the top.”

While many voters have changed positions since 2007 because of a new revenue-distribution formula that benefits local governments and schools, a Vote No group complains the track and the state still get too much money. They say residents face the threat of higher taxes for law enforcement, emergency services, road construction “and social services to address the needs of the many new low-wage workers brought in to fill positions.”

Betsy Smith, 49, a customer service worker from Bolivar, was among those voting no.

The local college, Shepherd University, does a lot of good for the county, she said, and community leaders should focus on a future that includes partnerships with the school and high-tech companies.

“I think there are better ways to help the economy than gambling,” she said. “It’s a quick fix, and we need a long-term goal.”

But the track’s job-creation argument holds sway for many, with unemployment at more than 6 percent and competition for slot players from Pennsylvania and Maryland morphing from threat to reality. The track and its supporters say it’s only a matter of time before gamblers stop traveling, and Charles Town needs something to stay ahead of the game.

Josh Bayles, 24, of Harpers Ferry is hopeful the games will be approved.

“I don’t go to the racetrack, but if it helps the area and brings jobs in, I’m for it,” said Mr. Bayles, who is unemployed. “I know they’re giving 500 jobs out, and I just had a daughter, so hopefully this can happen and I can give her a better life.”

Cricky Schultz, whose family runs Schultz Realty, argues the games would have positive ripple effects beyond the track.

Home and property values have plummeted, many construction jobs have vanished, and there is no immediate promise of prosperity on the horizon, he said.

“This is a mechanism to create new jobs. This is a way to keep everything running,” said Mr. Schultz, whose company also owns several hotels. “Occupancy rates are down. Jobs are down. Wages are down. And this changes all that.

“And think about the investors,” he adds. “We’ve sold 10 properties in the last 30 days - all contingent on this passing.”

Three other counties approved table games for their casinos the first time around - Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort in Chester, Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack and Tri-State Racing and Gaming Center in Nitro.

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