By just 33 votes, the prospect economic development appeared to trump moral concerns over gambling Saturday, as voters in West Virginia’s largest county approved poker, blackjack and other table games at the local greyhound track.
"We knew that the election was going to be close," said John Cavacini, president of the state Racing Association. "This county is split right down the middle on the issue of gambling, the expansion of gambling."
If Saturday’s tally holds, opponents can petition for a recall election after five years. If the result changes, the track could seek a vote again in two years.
"It’s been pretty up and down. We couldn’t concede if we wanted to," said John Carey, executive director of the antigambling West Virginia Values Coalition. "We’re trying to get a handle on where those provisional ballots are coming from."
The special election caps a multiyear campaign pitting the state’s four tracks against antigambling forces over whether to expand the state lottery system.
The tracks already host more than 12,000 slot machines for the lottery, which will oversee the table games. The tracks’ parent companies argue the new games will help them blunt competition from surrounding states. Slot casinos began opening in Pennsylvania late last year.
Having postponed a June 9 election because of a public notice error, Kanawha is the fourth and final county to vote on table games.
West Virginia’s other greyhound track, Wheeling Island Racetrack and Gaming Center, saw voters in Ohio County approve the games in June. But the two counties with horse tracks split during special elections also held that month.
Hancock County approved the games for Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort, owned by MTR Gaming Group Inc. Jefferson County rejected them for Penn National Gaming subsidiary Charles Town Races & Slots.
As in these other counties, churches, social conservatives and other opponents waged a campaign to defeat table games in Kanawha. These foes warn of rising rates of crime, divorce, suicide and bankruptcy if gambling is expanded in the state.
Supported by a coalition ranging from unions to chambers of commerce, the tracks vowed to add hundreds of jobs and plow millions into their tourist destination offerings if given table games.
Owned by Michigan-based Hartman & Tyner Inc., Tri-State linked passage to 1,000 new jobs and a $250 million upgrade that would include a 250-room hotel and 6,500 seat arena.
All four tracks agreed to pay for the special elections, which in Kanawha County is expected to cost more than $300,000. Along with annual licensing fees _ $1.5 million to start, $1.5 million to renew _ the tracks must also fork over 35 percent of gross table games proceeds.
The revenue is already earmarked to a variety of causes.
The fees will benefit in-home senior care. Shares of the taxes go to the state’s debt and to dog and horse breeding funds, and to racetrack pensions and purses. Each of the state’s counties and municipalities will also receive revenue, with larger portions to those that host eligible tracks.