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New W.Va. casino clears House Judiciary

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- House of Delegates Judiciary Committee members approved the construction of the state's sixth casino, but also declined to consider a Senate bill that would lower the fees paid by four existing casinos.

The bill to allow a new casino in Pendleton County passed 16-7 Friday with mostly Republican opposition. Some Republican delegates said the gambling industry is declining and that the new casino would take business from the existing ones.

"I'm concerned that there is a finite-at-best pie in the gaming industry and the more facilities we add, we're just slicing that pie smaller and smaller and smaller," said Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha.

The proposed casino's developers would have to build 1,000 home sites and a 150-room hotel. No representative from the developer was there to address the committee, but Steve Conrad, a Pendleton County resident, spoke in favor of the proposal. Conrad said Pendleton has been hit hard by job losses. Hanover Shoes closed its plant there in 2000 and a U.S. Navy communications center is scheduled to close in 2015.

Conrad said the casino would provide much-needed jobs and economic development. He said that the developer's willingness to invest is proof of the casino's viability. Franklin, where the casino would be located, has less than 800 residents and is not served by any interstate highways. The casino would be heavily dependent on Virginia residents for business.

Local voters would have to approve the plan in a referendum before it could be built.

Delegate Woody Ireland, R-Ritchie, said he is sympathetic to Pendleton County's plight but doesn't think a new casino is the answer.

"I'd hope that the good folks in Pendleton County come up with another Hanover Shoe factory," Ireland said. "I truly believe that when we base our economy on the gambling industry, we're basing our economy on soft and shifting sands, and that's pretty well referenced by a bill we had on our agenda today, Senate Bill 615."

That bill would have lowered the fees paid by each of the state's four racetrack-casinos by $1 million. Wheeling Island casino threatened to drop table games unless its fee was lowered.

The bill passed the Senate earlier this week on a 24-10 vote but was dropped from the House committee agenda Friday, effectively dooming its chance of passage. House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said he didn't think there were enough votes on his committee to pass the bill.

Wheeling Island has said it will lose $1 million on table games this year. Discontinuing table games would mean more than 100 jobs lost.

Legislators questioned if Wheeling Island really needs the fee reduction. The casino has grossed more than $70 million in slot machine revenue since July 1.

The Mardi Gras casino in Nitro makes about half as much on gaming as Wheeling Island. Mardi Gras has not requested a fee reduction.

Amid competition from neighboring states, revenue at the four racetrack-casinos is expected to be at least $200 million lower this fiscal year than it was in 2012.


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