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Wheeling Island will renew table game license

WHEELING, W.Va. -- The gamble paid off.

Wheeling Island Racetrack and Casino announced Monday it would renew its annual $2.5 million table game license fee, despite telling state lawmakers it could not afford the fee and likely would not re-up the license.

A bill to reduce the license fee died in the House Judiciary Committee earlier this year, where members opted to roll the dice and hope the casino would renew its license anyway.

Osi Imomoh, Wheeling Island's new president and general manager, said table games still are not expected to make a profit over the next year. In fact, they are expected to lose about $1 million.

But Imomoh said the casino chose to renew its license in hopes the Legislature would reduce the fees, as well as the state's 35 percent tax on table games, during the 2014 regular session.

The push to reduce table game license fees from $2.5 million to $1 million arose late in this year's legislative session. Imomoh said it did not give lawmakers enough time to work out the kinks of the legislation.

"We didn't have enough time to get it through the complete process," he said. "It's not just for us. It's for the casinos around the state."

He said casinos opening in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Maryland are putting the squeeze on West Virginia facilities by drawing away business. Those other states also have lower taxes on casinos: Pennsylvania charges a 16 percent table game tax while Ohio has a 33 percent tax and no annual fee.

"When you look at those things and combine what's happening, overall we need to sit down and come up with a plan," Imomoh said.

Wheeling Island has 24 table games, along with live Greyhound races, a nine-table poker room and more than 1,600 slot machines. The racetrack and casino has around 650 employees, with 100 dedicated to table games.

House Judiciary chairman Tim Miley said the bill to reduce table game license fees died in his committee because it did not have enough support to pass.

He said it was not an easy decision to make. Wheeling Island lies within Senate President Jeff Kessler's district and Kessler, D-Marshall, introduced the bill because he feared the racetrack would not re-up the license and cut dozens of jobs in the area.

"You try to balance what's in the best interest of the state while still helping certain specific areas of the state," Miley said. "That's the balance we always find ourselves in.

"The concern was, we were being asked to get involved in what many believed was purely a business decision that Wheeling Island Casino was going to have to make," he said.

The bill would have reduced license fees for all four state racetracks from $2.5 million to $1 million, even though Wheeling Island was the only facility to complain it could not afford the fee.

Money from the license fees are deposited to the Bureau of Senior Services.

Miley said other racetracks were making "considerable amounts of profit" from table games, and lawmakers felt it was inappropriate to give those businesses a tax break.

John Cavicini, president of the West Virginia Racing Association, a lobbying group that supports state racetracks and casinos, said his organization would continue to seek cuts in fees and gambling taxes in the 2014 legislative session.

Had Wheeling Island not renewed its license, Cavicini said West Virginia likely would have lost $6 million or more in revenue, due to the loss of table game taxes as well as the license fee.

Imomoh said a recent decision by the state Lottery Commission also influenced Wheeling Island's decision to renew the license.

The commission recently granted Wheeling Island preliminary approval to install electronic table games.

Cavicini said Wheeling Island is the only racetrack in West Virginia that does not operate 24 hours a day.

By installing electronic table games, which do not require as many employees as regular live table games, Cavicini said the casino could continue to do business in the slow hours when no dealers are working.

Racetrack officials will present its plan for using electronic table games at a commission meeting this Friday.

Currently, only Charles Town Races Hollywood Casino operates electronic table games in West Virginia. Cavicini said Charles Town adopted the games as a crowd control method, since it often did not have enough table games to serve all its patrons. Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or zack.harold@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.

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