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Md. casino issue threatens Charles Town

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's financial future could be affected by the outcome of a Maryland ballot issue.  

When they head to the polls on Election Day in November, Maryland voters will consider Question 7, which legalizes table games and green lights construction of a new casino in Prince George's County.

The ballot referendum is drawing significant attention in Maryland. The Washington Post reported this week that casino companies have spent $24 million on ads so far this year.

West Virginia Lottery officials also are paying close attention.

"That's something that we're watching and preparing for it," Lottery spokesman Randy Burnside said.

New casinos in Ohio and Pennsylvania have started to put a strain on the Wheeling Island and Mountaineer casinos in the Northern Panhandle.

Those out-of-state casino openings have been delayed, staving off the revenue drain for the state, but officials still expect it will take a toll.

Maryland competition could have a even bigger impact.

Casinos in that state would compete with the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town in the Eastern Panhandle. Charles Town casino owner Penn National Gaming has spent $13 million in Maryland to air ads urging voters to oppose Question 7.

The Charles Town operation is the cash cow for the West Virginia Lottery. The casino brings in about $14 million in table game revenue each month — far more than the state's three other racetrack casinos combined.

Lottery officials hope that even if the ballot referendum passes, the introduction of out-of-state table games won't hurt Charles Town like it has the Mountaineer and Wheeling Island facilities.

Burnside said the casino market in the Eastern Panhandle and Baltimore-Washington D.C. metro area is far different that the one surrounding the Northern Panhandle.

"We're talking about a very large metropolitan area, and the demographics there are very different there than they are in northern West Virginia, and eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania," he said.

"Washington, D.C. and Baltimore are big enough where they can probably support multiple casinos, but we just don't know."

Lottery officials have said in some instances competition actually has boosted the market. For instance, when new casinos opened in Detroit, existing operations saw a boost in revenue as new players were attracted to the area.

But West Virginia officials are not sure if that will happen in the Eastern Panhandle area.

"Only time will tell on that," Burnside said. "But we are preparing for the worst-case scenario."

Lottery revenue officials have lowered forecasts for table game revenue in coming years to account for out-of-state competition.

Burnside said regardless of what happens, West Virginia officials will keep working to boost the in-state casino industry.

"We'll be ready for it, and we'll do what we can to stay competitive," he said.

Contact writer Jared Hunt at jared.hunt@dailymail.com or 304-348-5148.


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