West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice did veto Senate Bill 437 today in Wheeling and now the legislation will initially return to the Senate for override consideration. If Senate leadership refuses to pick up the effort, or if fewer than 18 senators vote in favor of the override, the bill dies and the West Virginia Greyhound Breeders Development Fund remains in tact, the gaming and live greyhound racing industries stay coupled, and live greyhound racing would continue at Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack.
She doesn’t know.
Her husband, Greg Strong, continued this past week to work their GLS Kennels the same as always, but he doesn’t know either.
He awoke early each day to feed more than 25 dogs – raw meat with rice, spinach, brown sugar, a few vitamins accompanied by hydrating liquids including lamb’s milk and Gatorade-type water. He then guides most of these youngsters to the dog runs on their five-acre farm in Marshall County. And then dinner and the bathing, and, yes, there are better and worse ways to put the pups to bed.
What Greg and Louise Strong do know for sure is that the majority of lawmakers in both chambers of the West Virginia Legislature approved the destruction of the state’s greyhound-racing industry that employs more than 1,700 workers in Kanawha, Brooke, and Ohio counties. The state Senate voted 19-15 on Senate Bill 437, legislation that would allow for the de-coupling of the greyhound and casino industries, would eliminate the West Virginia Greyhound Breeders Development Fund, and allow the lawmakers to swipe away the $15 million that was collected from individuals patronizing the racetracks and not from Mountain State taxpayers.
The bill, later passed by the House of Delegates by a 56-44 count, also would allow the casino-racetracks near Charleston and on Wheeling Island to move to a new location within the same county if the owners shed the live greyhound racing. The legislation was delivered to Gov. Jim Justice’s desk on Tuesday and the state’s CEO had not signed or vetoed the bill as of Friday evening.
The Strongs are, of course, aware that Gov. Justice is scheduled to appear at West Virginia Independence Hall in downtown Wheeling Saturday morning at 11 a.m. to make what his office has described as a “major announcement involving the greyhound-racing industry.”
They both want to believe he will veto and that a majority-plus-one override isn’t possible by the end of the session, but since the nature of that announcement has not been revealed, these breeders and kennel owners just don’t know what to think about the future of their greyhounds or about their own future.
“I mean, I guess everyone is going to have to lick their wounds and figure it out for themselves. That’s what we’re going to have to do, and I don’t know what that is right now. I guess we’ll have to hope the other tracks in the country stay where they are so we can use everything we have saved to send the dogs we have now so they can keep racing and finish their careers,” Louise Strong said. “There are a few tracks we could send them to if the governor doesn’t stop this from becoming our reality.
“We’ll also have to make sure that we receive everything we’re due because if the Legislature goes in there and takes all of the money from the development fund, then that means we won’t,” she said. “The people who wrote the law obviously don’t know how this is all mandated, and we’ll have to fight for it while trying to do without those dollars. Plus, this is the third year the lawmakers have tried to do this with the development fund, so we haven’t known our long-term future since 2014.”
But why the Greyhound Development Fund has been under attack is a mystery to most, but not all.
“The Republican leadership in the House and in the Senate has insisted the state needs the money because of the ongoing budget crisis,” explained Del. Shawn Fluharty (D-3rd). “It’s what they call low-hanging fruit here in Charleston, and that means it’s the easy money to grab for the budget hole. But this year it seems elimination of the greyhounds has been more important, and I’m not sure why.”
And Strong, the mother of a son and three daughters, owns an inkling that she may know a little more to the story.
“I think a part of this is to get revenge against Earl Ray Tomblin,” Strong said. “When he was in the Senate and when he was governor, he did some good things for our industry, but some think that it was only because his family has been in the business.
“And I think another part of it is about moving the video lottery and the table games outside the city of Wheeling. Even my husband, when he got to the end of the bill, asked why that language was needed in it, but it only took him a half-second to come to the same conclusion I had come to. I just don’t think another location would work for them, so I hope that isn’t true. There are too many people involved that could get hurt,” she continued. “Wheeling Island attracts a lot of people from a lot of different states, but it’s the locals that do love the dogs because the track doesn’t advertise the dogs anymore, and that’s why most people don’t realize the handle for greyhound wagering was up more than a $1 million during the past year.”
She is native of New Jersey but moved to Florida because her father had a business that just so happened to be near the greyhound racing track in Orlando. That is where she met Greg and the owners of a kennel and they eventually moved with them to a farm in Rhode Island.
On their first day on the job, though, all of the greyhounds in the kennel were suffering from stomach and intestinal issues.
“But I helped them get through all of that, and that’s how my career in this industry started. I was a kid who would take home birds and every stray animal that I could find, so when those greyhounds needed my help, my love for animals really kicked in,” Strong recalled. “And the greyhound is really a special breed.
“Anyone who thinks these dogs are abused because they run the races knows nothing about greyhounds or the dog-racing industry. This kennel is their home, and they are all very well cared for,” she said. “And they make wonderful house pets once they retire because they are so friendly and obedient because of the love they receive and because of their training. The only thing about them is that they will chase anything because that’s what they like to do.”
GLS Kennels has raised big winners at the former Wheeling Downs since Greg and Louise moved to Wheeling in 1999 to work with Keota Kennels. Then, in 2004, the couple bought the business and began racing their raised dogs at the Island racetrack. These days they have greyhounds in Wheeling and at the Mardi Gras Casino and Resort in Nitro, W.Va.
Greg and Louise make a living, and they pay their bills and taxes, but the misinformation published in the newspapers and what some lawmakers recited during floor speeches in the House and Senate are just untrue, Strong insisted.
“Every year they put these figures in the newspaper, and the first time a few years ago I had one of my daughters call me to tell me that a friend of hers said it was published and that Greg and I make all this money,” Strong said. “Well, apparently, someone at that newspaper didn’t realize that those figures were the gross amount collected before the taxes we pay and before paying for the operation of the kennel and the business of it all. Plus, it takes two years for one of these pups to be ready to get on the track.
“It’s a big investment that needs to be made in the dogs, and it’s not guaranteed that they will grow up and be great adults,” she explained. “It’s not what it appears to be based on those figures. Nowhere close. It’s not like we live in a mansion on this farm.”
It was a week ago when the delegates of the House debated Senate Bill 437 for three hours, and lawmakers on both sides urged their colleagues to abide by their recommendations. Most of the representatives for the Northern Panhandle offered factual information about the development fund, the generated revenue, the taxpayer costs associated with the employment benefits for 1,700 employees, and the cost to the city of Wheeling.
But still it was 56-44, even with every Northern Panhandle lawmaker lobbying and then voting against bill, because the propaganda won, Strong feels.
Is the greyhound development fund a subsidy paid into by all West Virginia residents?
Are these greyhounds disposed of and most often euthanized once their racing careers are over?
But those facts didn’t seem to matter to one employee of GLS Kennels. He quit the day after the House vote.
“Yeah, he bailed on us because he wanted to go look for another job,” Strong said. “So, now I’m already short on help this week, and I only had five employees in my kennel. So now I’m down to four and that means we all have to pick up the slack until I can find someone else for the next few months for as long as we’re running here in Wheeling.
“I have one employee who has been with me for almost seven years, another who has been with the kennel for five years, and my pick-up guy has worked for us for three years,” she said. “It takes a lot, and this life isn’t easy; that I can tell you after being involved with it most of my adult life.”
Gov. Justice will make his Saturday morning announcement inside the third-floor courtroom of Independence Hall, the same space in which the creation of the state of West Virginia was ratified on June 20, 1863.
But for the Strongs and the Salems and so many other families entrenched in this greyhound-racing industry, the governor’s visit isn’t about a birth of anything but instead a resurrection of the only livelihood they know. If Justice vetoes, the track-based and kennel-hired jobs could be saved at least for another year if the Senate and the House do not attempt an override, but that doesn’t mean GLS Kennels will decide to continue to breed.
“We had two girls miss and that looks like it might be a blessing because, if this elimination goes through, there are going to be so many dogs that will need to be placed, I am afraid there won’t be enough places,” Strong said. “Some of those lawmakers just want to keep saying that they want to get rid of the dogs, but every one of these dogs is going to need people. They just can’t take care of themselves, and that’s what the people down there failed to realize.
“We know the Governor is coming, but no one has told us what the big news is. One way or another, whatever he decides and says, that will be big news,” she added. “We know what we do, we know the votes and what’s at stake, and we know a lot of people in this area are pretty angry over the loss of jobs, the loss of the taxes, and what’s at stake as far as development. That’s what we know, but we don’t know our own future.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)