Many communities see gambling as a scourge to be kept out, but most people in tiny Colonial Beach, Va., see it as an important piece of their history and their future.
Even the minority of people who oppose gambling in the Westmoreland County town of 3,200 -- known in the 1950s as "the Las Vegas of the East" -- have come to view the matter a little differently since last September. That's when Hurricane Isabel wiped out the Riverboat, the last gambling venue on the once-storied boardwalk, and took away one of the area's largest employers.
Now there are two separate campaigns to revive gambling. One would rebuild the Riverboat, in glitzier style, restoring the 75 jobs lost to Isabel, and the other would bring an off-track betting facility to the county, most likely in Colonial Beach.
A referendum on off-track betting will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot in Westmoreland and four other communities where Colonial Downs is considering opening betting parlors. Colonial Downs owns the state's only betting race track and six off-track parlors, where bets are accepted on televised horse races.
Owners of the Riverboat -- which had an off-track betting parlor licensed by Maryland, because it was on a pier that was technically in Maryland waters -- say they plan to rebuild, encouraged by 3,000 signatures on a petition. But the project may become entangled in a centuries-old legal dispute between Virginia and Maryland that went to the Supreme Court last year.
At issue is which state controls the Potomac River. The high court reaffirmed that Maryland controls the entire riverbed, the arrangement that allowed the Virginia beach town to become a major gambling center even when gambling was illegal in the commonwealth. The gambling boats sat on piers just off shore, technically putting them in Maryland.
That has meant that gambling operations such as the Riverboat seek permits from and give tax revenue to Maryland. But the high court also said last year that Virginia had the right to withdraw water from the Potomac without Maryland's interference and to "build improvements" connected to its shore, somewhat muddying the question of which state has jurisdiction over floating casinos.
If it were determined that the Riverboat is in Virginia, its tax revenue would flow partly to Westmoreland County and partly to Colonial Beach, a seasonal community where one-quarter of the residents live at or below the federal poverty line. Last year, the Riverboat paid taxes to Maryland on $12 million in placed bets.
Even as discussions continue with Virginia, Maryland is moving forward with permitting a new Riverboat, a process that will take months.
Ann Congdon, a Colonial Beach Town Council member who tended bar at the Riverboat years ago, is pushing particularly hard for that local business to rebuild, wherever the tax revenue goes. The Riverboat offered jobs, good wages and something for people to do; even kids played video games at its arcade, she said.
"Lots of little kids wanted to sign the petition, but we wouldn't let them," she said. "It transcends the financial thing."
Riverboat advocates also took to the streets during a hot rod show last month, Congdon said, draping pro-gambling posters on their trucks or golf carts, which are legal on Colonial Beach's few roads.
That attitude makes Colonial Beach attractive to Colonial Downs, which is seeking to expand its operations. It is the only company licensed to run off-track betting in Virginia, and betting on races at Colonial Downs's New Kent track or its off-track parlors is the only legal form of gambling in Virginia, aside from the state lottery and charitable events such as bingo or raffles.
Colonial Downs President Ian Stewart said the company estimates that a betting parlor in Colonial Beach would mean $92,000 in annual tax revenue for Westmoreland County and $250,000 for Virginia on bets of about $14 million a year. Colonial Beach would get a lesser, undetermined amount in taxes, benefiting mainly from tourist spending.
The Colonial Downs parlor in Richmond has been the company's busiest, taking in $50 million in bets a year until the company opened a second one nearby.
What the company wants, Stewart said, is access to the growing Fredericksburg area. It also has measures on the November ballot in Greene, Scott and Henry counties and the city of Manassas Park but has permission from the state legislature to open only four parlors. Westmoreland County's would be the smallest, so if all five places approve betting parlors, Colonial Beach might not get one.
But Stewart doesn't expect to have the luxury of that much choice.
The only organized opposition to the gambling revival in Colonial Beach has come from those who fear that the market is too small to support two off-track betting facilities and are pushing for the local Riverboat -- assuming that it remains under Maryland's jurisdiction or can obtain a Virginia license.
The discussion comes as Colonial Beach is trying to redefine itself in the wake of a storm that almost finished off what a weakening economy had started.
Colonial Beach has some of the last available stretches of waterfront property in the Washington area, and property values are beginning to rise as several large developments get underway. A recent public debate about how to revive the ailing boardwalk was inconclusive, prompting business leaders to launch a "vision" commission "to try and get a brand for the town," as council member Linda Crandell put it.
"Whatever it is, we want this to be a family-oriented town," said Crandell, who is open to off-track betting parlors that are architecturally pleasing. "I like the feeling that I can let my children walk home from a game even if it's dark. I like to walk on the boardwalk at night. I want to keep that feeling."