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WV Senate tries again for Pendleton County casino

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The motto for passing legislation in West Virginia often is "try, try again," and in the case of Senate Bill 492, lawmakers are trying again to bring gaming to Fisher Mountain Golf Club and Resort in Pendleton County.

During the 2012 regular legislative session, a similar bill was introduced in the Senate, sponsored by former Sen. Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas, Sen. Greg Tucker, D-Nicholas, and Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph. Click here to read our previous coverage of this issue.

That bill didn't make it through Senate Judiciary.

This year's take on permitting a limited gaming facility at a very specific rural resort community passed the Senate Judiciary Committee with a handful of "no" votes March 28.  Its lead sponsor is Tucker.

The bill makes a few changes to the 2011 gaming bill which opened up gambling at the Greenbrier Resort by not naming it, but instead allowing gaming at a "well-established historic resort hotel." The bill proposes the addition of a "rural resort community," defined by six very specific factors.

A rural resort community, by the bill's definitions, has at least 1,000 planned home sites on at least 1,000 contiguous acres; a hotel or lodge with at least 150 rooms; planned development of at least 1,000 acres; specific amenities for guests; a location with fewer than 15 people per square mile and fewer than 10,000 people under the most recent Census; access to state and national forest land; and an adequate economic base beyond tourism to sustain a gaming facility.

Sen. Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell, asked for transparency's sake what the bill was allowing, even though single-purpose legislation is not allowed, he was unaware what property would literally fit the bill.

A Pendleton County resident, Steve Conrad, addressed the committee in support of the bill, which he said would apply to Fisher Mountain Resort.

He spoke of job losses and closed businesses in the area.

"We need some relief," Conrad said. "Our children have to go to the D.C. area to get a job, our tax base continues to fall, and it's hard to raise money for rescue squads and schools."

Conrad said there was "broad support" for a casino in Pendleton County "because of the economic hardships."

Jenkins reminded Conrad that the state's lottery revenue peaked in 2007.

"Should this be the recipe for every other county?" Jenkins asked.

Conrad said he assumed that since LGI Corporation had already bought Fisher Mountain Resort at a roughly $80 million price tag, several economic studies had been conducted.

"This resort would be a dream come true," he said.

Conrad said LGI looks for rural areas similar to Pendleton County for projects, and has had "fantastic success in other counties."

He also estimated that 300 full-time jobs with benefits would be brought by a casino, at a $30 million boost in taxes to the area after five years in business.

The bill also would repeal the current code that requires a local option election before the gaming facility is built. Counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee told lawmakers that there could be some Constitutional concerns with that part of the bill because the state Constitution requires local option elections for bingo games and raffles, but a court might not interpret casino-typed gaming to be the same thing.

Sen. Chris Walters, R-Putnam, asked if he could make an amendment to address recent concerns about who gambles at the Greenbrier, since the law only permits entry into the Greenbrier's gaming area for overnight guests, convention guests or homeowners. Walters was advised that he could make that amendment because that section of the code was open in the bill, but he did not offer an amendment.

The bill does not have a similar requirement for the rural resort community.

The bill has a second committee reference to the Senate Finance Committee.