Greyhounds Vital To Wheeling’s Renaissance

The Senate voted 19-15.

The House of Delegates voted 56-44.

And now Senate Bill 437, legislation that would eliminate the West Virginia Greyhound Breeders Fund, rests on the desk of Gov. Jim Justice, and many members of the Wheeling community are hoping he vetoes the bill to force another round of debate in both chambers. If the governor signs the bill, greyhound racing would vanish at two racetracks, including on Wheeling Island and at the Mardi Gras Casino and Racetrack in Kanawha County.

The breeders fund, a collection of cash that is collected from those participating in gaming at the two facilities, is utilized to stoke the purses and to assist the many greyhound farms in the Mountain State. Without the fund, however, the racetrack areas at both locations will fall silent beginning July 1. The coupling of the gaming and racing industries first took place in the mid-1990s when the Legislature approved video lottery, and then table games were included when passed in 2007.

Senate Bill 437 allows for the de-coupling of the industry and would allow video lottery and table-game activities to continue without live racing for the first time in state history.

“It is a difficult day for us knowing a historical part of our business has been catastrophically impacted. The legislature was faced with a difficult decision and despite the overwhelming support from our local community, our legislators, kennel owners’ association and city leadership, we were unsuccessful in maintaining our greyhound fund,” stated Kim Florence, President & General Manager at Wheeling Island, in a press release circulated Saturday evening. “Our priority over the next few months will be our racing associates and working with our kennel partners to evolve our business in response to the state’s decision.

“We will then look at what needs to be done to maintain the remaining jobs and tax revenue we provide to the city, county, and state,” she continued. “We have been and will continue to be an important positive economic driver, a regional destination of entertainment and source of jobs for the state and region.”

The Wheeling Island casino underwent an expansion and extensive renovation in 2003, adding a substantial amount of dollars to the company’s annual property tax bill.

Florence did not respond to an interview request, but Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott said that with the loss of jobs and the economic impact the casino and racetrack have on the city of Wheeling, the TIF-funded re-development in the downtown area would slow without greyhound racing on Wheeling Island.

“This legislation’s effects will be far-reaching not only for the 1,700 people who are employed in the greyhound industry, but also for the City of Wheeling’s finances. The Wheeling Island Hotel Casino & Racetrack generates more than $1 million annually for the city’s General Fund, a portion of which comes directly from greyhound racing,” the mayor explained. “Losing that industry, plus losing the additional revenue generated when racing patrons gamble in the casino’s gaming facilities, will reduce city revenues.

“It is important to note that all the improvements made to the casino and racetrack since 2003 constitute roughly one-half of the $60 million improvements to the City’s Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district. The city currently receives roughly $1 million annually from this TIF district, roughly one-half of which is attributable to casino/racetrack improvements,” Elliott explained. “Losing greyhound racing will certainly devalue that increment, though it’s difficult to say by how much.”

Elliott joined Wheeling Councilwoman Wendy Scatterday (Ward 4) in Charleston to meet with as many lawmakers as possible before the floor vote took place in the House of Delegates Saturday.

“We did what we could in Charleston to educate delegates about the impact that this legislation would have on West Virginia jobs, gaming revenues received by every county, and the city of Wheeling in particular,” he said. “Those I spoke to were willing to listen, but it became very clear that House leadership was actively whipping votes for passage.

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The buildings once in place in this area of downtown Wheeling were purchased and demolished with funds generated by the TIF District, one that includes most of downtown Wheeling and the southern tip of Wheeling Island.

“I cannot thank Delegates Fluharty and Storch enough for their assistance to us when we were down there.  But at the end of the day, we couldn’t stop the bill,” the mayor admitted. “We had a very positive meeting with the Governor and he understands the significance of greyhound racing to our community and, in particular, to the city’s finances. We feel good that we will have his support with a veto. The question then comes to the override votes. We feel pretty good that we will be able to sway a few of the ‘yes’ votes in the Senate. It’s a tougher road in the House.”

Also included in the bill is language that would allow for Wheeling Island’s parent company, Delaware North, to move the gaming portion of the business to another location in Ohio County, and possibly out of the city of Wheeling.

The approved bill states:

“Racetrack table games license” means authorization granted under this article by the commission to a racetrack that is already licensed under article twenty-two-a of this chapter to operate racetrack video lottery terminals and holds a valid horse racing license or held a valid dog racing license prior to January 1, 1994, granted by the West Virginia Racing Commission pursuant to the provision of article twenty-three, chapter nineteen of this code, which permits the racetrack as an agent of the commission for the limited purpose of operation of West Virginia Lottery table games in one or more designated gaming areas in one or more buildings owned by the licensed racetrack on the grounds where live pari-mutuel racing is conducted by the licensee, or in the case of a licensee that held a valid dog racing license prior to January 1, 1994, and that no longer conducts live racing, on the grounds where live pari-mutuel racing was conducted between January 1, 1994, and June 30, 2017, or in a location approved by the commission within the county of such racetrack.”

“If that happened, the impact on our TIF district would be catastrophic,” Elliott insisted. “But even if they do not move, the very fact that they can move in and of itself will compromise our ability to issue future TIF bonds to stimulate investment inside the TIF district, which includes most of downtown.

A large swath of the south end of Wheeling Island is owned by Delaware North, parent company of Wheeling Island-Hotel-Casino-Racetrack.

“Along with Vice Mayor Chad Thalman and City Manager Bob Herron, I met with Wheeling Island Hotel Casino & Racetrack President Kim Florence and Delaware North Regional General Manager Osi Imomoh on Saturday afternoon to discuss what this legislation means for their operations. Obviously, losing up to 20 percent of their revenue stream is a serious concern, and they will be looking at a host of options going forward to try to recover this lost business,” he continued. “I have no doubts that moving the casino will be one of the options that they consider. That said, they have a very sizable investment on the southern end of Wheeling Island, and they indicated that they have no current plans to leave.”

Elliott also requested future conversations about how the city of Wheeling may be able to enhance the presence of the Wheeling Island business, including customer access from the downtown area.

“I asked both of them to keep an open dialogue with me and city government about ways that we can work together to improve their performance in Wheeling. One obvious area where we could work together is in opening up options for more foot traffic to their facilities,” he said. “They estimated that less than 1 percent of their patrons actually walk to the Casino. Meanwhile, downtown Wheeling sees thousands of people flocking to festivals and events at Heritage Port annually, while it is also seeing people with disposable income moving into new apartment living options.

“As the crow flies, it’s approximately 2,000 feet from Heritage Port to the Casino’s front door – less than half a mile. If they worked with us on building a dock on the east side of Wheeling Island, there is no reason why a ferry couldn’t be scheduled during certain hours to connect these two Wheeling attractions,” Elliott explained. “This is the type of out-of-the box thinking that I hope to see going forward as we work with them to overcome whatever obstacles this legislation—if enacted—creates.”

(Photos by Steve Novotney)