Making the News

The State Journal, West Virginia

Originally Published:Thursday, June 12, 2008

Lottery CFO Jim Toney said even though the West Virginia Lottery serves as the state's lottery conduit, the addition of table games has added to everyone's workload. However, the state was able to draw on advice from accountants and law enforcement agents through consultants with Spectrum Gaming Group.


Table Games Elections: One Year Later
The state's four racetracks each tell different tales of their table game journeys.

By Ann Ali
The State Journal, West Virginia

Talk of table games in West Virginia goes back a few years, and this week marks one year since two counties' referendums pulled the trigger for table gaming in West Virginia.

Jefferson County voters defeated a measure allowing table games at Charles Town Races and Slots during a special June 2007 election, but Ohio County's passed it. Hancock County voters approved it June 30, 2007, and, despite some ballot blunders, Kanawha County voters accepted table games by a slim margin Aug. 11.

How the Games Are Going

"We think it has really allowed us to broaden our demographic reach," said Mountaineer Casino Racetrack and Resort President and CEO Ted Arneault. "It's created a lot of excitement in the casino, and the job base it created is certainly important for the area. All of the things we talked about are really coming to pass."

Mountaineer, along with Wheeling Island Hotel Casino Racetrack, went online with poker -- the first round of table games -- Oct. 20, 2007. Arneault said table games brought 750 new jobs to Mountaineer, and Wheeling Island had expected to bring in about 500 new employees with table games, but the racetrack's spokeswoman was unavailable by The State Journal's deadline.

Table game talk picked up speed in 2005 with the election of Gov. Joe Manchin and impending competition from Pennsylvania slot machines.

The elections set off a domino effect on plans the state, racetracks and even community and technical colleges had been working on for years, in some instances.

"When you look at it on paper, it sounds pretty easy," Arneault said. "But we hired 750 people to basically create a whole new industry in this area.

"It's been a year since table games passed, but other than the poker, it's only been six months since they've been up and running. ... There's constant fine-tuning being done to make it a better product for our customers."

The West Virginia Lottery hired Dean Patrick as deputy CFO and later named him deputy director for table games -- a new division to prepare for table games.

"Once legislation is passed, it's up to the agency to come up with rules and regulations," said Lizabeth White, deputy director for marketing with the Lottery. "That wasn't the first session table games had come up, so we had to learn an entire industry, and one just doesn't know.

"All could have failed, all could have passed, and we just had to be flexible."

Lottery CFO Jim Toney said even though the West Virginia Lottery serves as the state's lottery conduit, the addition of table games has added to everyone's workload. However, the state was able to draw on advice from accountants and law enforcement agents through consultants with Spectrum Gaming Group.

"Our job is to execute the will and pleasure of the Legislature," Toney said. "Once we've been through it, the flow is very simplistic."

Patrick said there was a bit of brainstorming and consultation to get the state started down the table game path and develop minimum internal accounting and control standards.

"It helped that we did poker first because it was a different animal -- you don't have to worry as much about the integrity of the game, because they're playing against each other," Patrick said. "But everything, when it comes to table games, has to be very precise, from money counts to dropping boxes and the routes money takes."

David Bradley, deputy director for security with the Lottery, echoed Patrick's comments that jump-starting a whole new industry was a little tricky, but things are running smoothly these days.

"We still talk to (Spectrum Gaming) weekly or so, and it's nice to have that, but it's been something new to everyone every day, and there is that learning curve," he said. "The tracks have their own surveillance, and we're there to make sure they do what they're supposed to do."

Bradley said he knew a man laid $100,000 in cash down at a Mountaineer blackjack table the day The State Journal interviewed him.

"They have a daily log, and they're continuously reporting, so I can look at any time and see if it's a busy day," he said. "We've already had several incidences and caught players cheating, caught employees choosing not to do the right thing, and we've gotten them out."

West Virginia Racing Association President John Cavacini, who represents the state's four racetracks, said when the gaming industry took table games to the Legislature, it was from the standpoint of increased revenue and jobs.

"We're probably on pace now to generate $15 million (in revenues at the Northern Panhandle tracks) by the end of June, so from that standpoint, it's been a highly successful program."

'Slowly But Surely'

In Kanawha County, it seems table games have been dealt tough hands since day one.

The clerk's office missed the public notification deadline, pushing the vote for Tri-State Racetrack and Gaming Center back to Aug. 11. After the election, stray ballots turned up, and the vote canvass showed table games passing by 343 votes, so county officials conducted a recount.

In September, Cathy Brackbill, vice president and general manager of Tri-State at the time, said the racetrack hoped to have the first poker games running by the end of 2007, and Tri-State's first job fair was scheduled for Oct. 10.

Dan Adkins, vice president of Hartman & Tyner Inc., which owns the racetrack, told Charleston newspapers in February that he hoped to have poker tables operating by July. He also announced a $250 million expansion project, which included changing the casino's name to Mardi Gras Gaming, the name of a Hartman & Tyner casino in Florida. Adkins told the press that racetrack employees were finding out about the changes along with the public.

Brackbill announced her resignation in May.

"We're increasing slowly but surely," said Richard Tessler, who was brought to the track in February from Foxwoods Resort as a casino executive.

"Everything is moving along according to our timeline, but there are always glitches that pop up -- equipment orders, chips, things that have to come in on time -- so we can't nail down an exact date, but we're pretty sure we'll have poker up before the end of August."

The table games law -- HB2718 -- requires a $1.5 million table games license for the first year a track holds the license, and the licenses expire June 30 each year. The second-year license costs $2.5 million. White, with the Lottery, said Tri-State has indicated to her that it will apply for its $1.5 million license July 1.

Tessler said the racetrack's name won't change until its hotel is built, and "resort" will be added to the name, but he said mardi gras is the racetrack's theme, not its new name.

"I believe Tri-State is going to be a boutique casino here," he said. "I believe the way it's being laid out, the quality of the design, it's going to be very friendly for the local population and people who live south of us to travel up and be very comfortable here.

"One thing I found coming from the East Coast to West Virginia, I don't have any customer service issues -- the people here are the nicest in the world. I think once the gaming population experiences our staff and how well they'll be treated, I think they'll continue to visit."

Cavacini said the delay in Tri-State's table games may have been a disappointment to some people, but it was done as a business decision.

"Dan Adkins had made the comment that they only get one opportunity to do it right here, and they are doing it the right way in their mind," Cavacini said. "Once they get operational, start building the new hotel and other amenities, I think some of the feelings that had been here in Kanawha County will go away."

Tessler said 75 people currently are enrolled in table games courses, and he needs about 90 poker dealers along with 180 people for blackjack, roulette and craps. After 90 days of employment, the racetrack will reimburse students' costs.

Reactions to Gaming

Mountaineer Casino currently is Hancock County's largest employer, and Hancock County Commission member Dan Greathouse said 48 percent of the county's budget comes from the casino.

"Without them, we'd be dead," said Greathouse, who heads the county Convention and Visitors' Bureau. "We would have had layoffs, not only at Mountaineer but at the county level. We'd have been in huge trouble."

The table game debate was as heated as the summer sun, but these days gambling opponents such as the West Virginia Family Foundation are simply observing.

"Basically, we've said all along, gambling's bad for the state," said Family Foundation President Kevin McCoy. "We're in a reactionary mode; they're in the driver's seat."

McCoy said his organization will be ready to oppose any future gaming legislation, but he said things have been quiet.

"Any time there is any legislation to open that thing back up, we'll be there," he said. "We're definitely going to be monitoring any legislation to open this thing back up to reduce, regulate and restrict.

"We're just on guard to react to whatever bill might be introduced."

The state's current Limited Video Retailers -- 1,659 throughout 54 counties -- will see the licenses for their more than 9,000 terminals expire in 2011, leaving the Legislature the option to change current legislation.

 

Ohio Valley correspondent Linda Harris contributed to this report.

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