West Virginia gambling legislation dies

File Photo An effort by Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack to establish a satellite location in Ohio County were scuttled last week when the West Virginia Senate Finance Committee defeated a bill to authorize another site.

WHEELING — Legislation permitting Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack to establish a second gambling location in Ohio County died in a committee of the West Virginia Senate.

House Bill 2901 was voted down 8-7 in the Senate Finance Committee.

Among those voting against the measure was Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall. Maroney admitted he agreed with the bill in principle but didn’t like how it was moving through the Legislature.

“It’s a slap in the face to small business,” Maroney, a supporter of the small video lottery operators, said. “We’re trying to sneak this through in the final weeks of the session. … I’m not totally against this happening, but I’m opposed to the road we’re taking. It doesn’t pass the smell test.

“We’re getting pressure from (the office of Gov. Jim Justice) on this. They supposedly don’t have an interest in this, so why are they calling everybody on the committee? We’re going to end up with one in Greenbrier County, too.”

There’s been no discussion this session of a satellite casino in Greenbrier County.

The legislation would have permitted West Virginia’s licensed casinos with dog racing to establish a secondary location to operate video lottery terminals and table games.

The second location was required to be within the same county as the racetrack, according to the legislation.

Only Wheeling Island and the Mardi Gras Casino — located in Kanawha County — have dog racing. Both are owned by Delaware North.

Maroney said there were a lot of details that would have to be worked out in the bill, and it would be better to take another year and vet the bill properly.

“One company (Delaware North) is trying to pull a fast one on the people of West Virginia without giving the people a say, and they’re just stepping right on top of all the small businesses that actually hire people,” he said.

John Cavacini, president of the West Virginia Racing Association, attributed the bill’s failure to Wheeling city officials, whom he said did not voice their support of their bill.

He said while the city had concerns about the bill, there was opposition to the measure by members of the West Virginia Amusement and Limited Video Lottery Association, which operate the state’s limited video lottery machines.

“The sad part about the whole thing is the city of Wheeling — although in the end they were neutral on (the) bill — played around and did not give their approval until (Tuesday). By that time, the opponents, the bar machine people, had the Legislature thinking Wheeling was against it.

“The city and the bar machine people cost Ohio County $20 million worth of investment by Delaware North, and 150 jobs.”

Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott said he has never met nor spoken to Cavacini and that he doesn’t know “what he is basing that opinion on.”

“The city watched this legislation closely during this session and had concerns about the impact that moving casino activities out of city limits would have on city finances,” he said. “We met with Delaware North representatives in Charleston earlier this month and made clear that we want to see Wheeling Island Casino-Hotel-Racetrack continue to succeed and grow its business. At the same time, we expressed our concerns about a future relocation of casino operations out of city limits.

“Our ultimate position after consultation on the specific language was that we were neutral on the legislation. … My understanding is that members of the Ohio County Commission were not consulted on this legislation before it was introduced. That was not helpful in building support. If Mr. Cavacini wants to cast blame here, he should address that oversight. It was not the city’s job to pass this legislation. Our job is to look out for the city’s taxpayers. I believe we did that here.”

Ohio County Commissioner Randy Wharton, president of the Ohio County Development Authority, did not immediately return a message Thursday evening.

State Lottery Director John Myers spoke before the Senate Finance Committee Thursday, and confirmed Wheeling Island planned to invest $20 million to build a 35,000 square-foot facility in Ohio County. He anticipated the operations would require the hiring of an additional 150 employees by the casino.

Sen. William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, a member of the committee, said he voted in favor of the bill. He said his support came following conversations with Wheeling officials, Ohio County commissioners, and representatives of Delaware North.

“My biggest concern was, would the city of Wheeling be on board, and be satisfied with the bill?” Ihlenfeld said. “I learned they did have some concern about language in the bill. They wanted some language in the bill to say the original facility had to continue to operate and offer services as it currently does.”

That language was successfully added to the bill, Ihlenfeld said.

“In the end, the city was neutral on the bill — not in favor or against it — the requests for changes by the city were adopted and incorporated into the final version,” he said.

Ihlenfeld said many of the committee members received calls from the LVL operators, who were concerned the satellite casino location would impact their bottom line.

Committee members also said during the meeting they were concerned the satellite location would cut into the profits of Wheeling Island’s existing facility. Those profits help fund Wheeling’s fire and pension plans.

Kim Florence, regional president and general manager of both the Wheeling Island and Mardi Gras casinos, told committee members Delaware North would continue to have a long-term commitment to the Wheeling Island location.

“This is an opportunity for us to grow our revenue,” she told the committee. “We’re not looking to reduce the size of the Island property — we are required to have a hotel and a racetrack.

“That facility is remaining intact, though it is not without its challenges.”

She mentioned the property was covered by flood water twice in 2018.

Wheeling City Manager Robert Herron said the city had always feared if the track were to establish a satellite location, it would provide an eventual opportunity for them to leave their Wheeling Island operation.

“As late as 5:30 p.m. (Wednesday) we were still talking about amending the bill,” he said. “The language was put in. It was made clear to the casino the city would not favor or work in opposition to the bill — that we would be neutral. That was expressed in the hearing, and that is the truth,” he said.