CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- Just past the Maryland line, a little more than an hour from Washington, Charles Town Racing and Slots glows with the artificial light of the resurrected.
Ten years ago, the track was defunct, shuttered when county voters rejected slot machine gambling. A year later, persuaded by poverty, politicians and Penn National Gaming, which would buy the track only if slots won the day, residents reversed themselves.
Donna Gough of Amelia, Va., hits a payoff at a slot machine at Charles Town Racing and Slots in West Virginia. Slots yield $7 million a week for the track.
(Katherine Frey -- The Washington Po St)
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Which is how, on a chilly night last week, Donna Gough found herself sitting beneath a plastic foam replica of Neptune, feeding quarters into one of 3,800 whirring machines. That's more slots in one spot, Charles Town's owners say, than any casino in Las Vegas.
"Look at that," Gough exclaimed as her electronic slot machine murmured, trilled and began spitting $75 in quarters into its shining steel tray. Every week, slots yield $7 million for the track, nearly two-thirds of which goes to the state.
"We look at this as entertainment," said Gough, 44, of Amelia, Va. "But sometimes when you go to bed at night, you close your eyes and you still hear that ding, ding, ding, ding.
"It gets into your system."
West Virginia's politicians know the feeling. For two decades, lawmakers have passed legislation turning this poor and rugged state into a regional gambling destination. Next to income and sales taxes, gambling is the biggest contributor to the state budget.
It began in 1984, when West Virginia amended its constitution to allow gambling and launched a lottery. Six years later, a proposal not unlike Maryland's was made to save an ailing racetrack with slots. Then, after the number of machines at tracks was expanded sevenfold, the state legalized thousands of "gray" machines, spreading sanctioned slots from tracks to taverns and convenience stores across the state.
Now, looking over its shoulder at gaming initiatives in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Kentucky, West Virginia wants to up the ante. If a new bill is passed by the legislature as expected, county residents will vote again, this time on whether to bring table games to the four tracks. If it passes, West Virginia would rival Las Vegas in its variety of gambling options. Supporters say such games as roulette and blackjack will keep out-of-town visitors coming. Opponents say gambling profits are not the way to bankroll a state.
Increasingly, observers on both sides agree on one thing: West Virginia's got the makings of a habit -- and of a cautionary tale for neighboring states bent on gambling for cash.
"Once you start down the road, it's hard to stop," said state Sen. Andy McKenzie (R-Wheeling), who supports the table games measure. When as much as one-fifth of the budget comes from gambling, he said, "it's difficult to eliminate."
In 1990, West Virginia's horse and dog tracks struggled to stay afloat. As an experiment, lawmakers, bolstered by the 1984 constitutional amendment that started the lottery, voted to bring 125 slot machines to a failing track, Waterford Park in Hancock County.
The machines were so successful that in 1994, voters in four counties -- Hancock, Ohio, Kanawha and Jefferson -- were presented with referendums on whether to bring slots to four tracks, including Waterford, now Mountaineer Park.
Three counties voted yes, but in relatively affluent, socially conservative Jefferson County, residents tossed out the measure. Soon after, the Charles Town track closed.