Kenton Corporation, owner of Charles Town Turf Club and Shenandoah Downs, announced yesterday the closing of the two race tracks.
The decision brings to a close 46 years of thoroughbred racing at Charles Town, W.Va.
"We had no alternative but to close down," said Alvin S. Trenk, chairman of the board of Shebandoah Corp., a subsidiary of Kenton that runs the tracks. "It was based on the deteriorating climate and the conditions in the State of West Virginia."
Charles Town was to begin 245 nights of racing on Jan. 26. The track had ended its 1978 meeting on Saturday, Dec. 16, with an average handle of $327,000 and attendance of 3,827. Both figures represented a 20 percent decline over 1977, according to Bill McDonald, the track's general manager.
"Right now we have no buyers," said Trenk. And we haven't explored any alternative uses for the property."
According to Trenk, the two tracks lost $250,000 in 1978 and were projected to lose $750,000 in 1979. Kenton Corp. bought Charles Town and Shenandoah and a Pennsylvania knitting mill belonging to the tracks' previous owners for $16 million 1977.
"We had hopes for a fair return on our investment," said Trenk. "But we've been plagued with problems.
"Our handle was hurt by a 1978 IRS ruling which called for a 20 percent withholding tax (on winnings of $1,000 on odds of 300 to 1 or more), a West Virginia parimutuel tax, extra raching dates for Maryland harness tracks and a loss of 19 days due to bad weather and the energy crisis."
According to Trenk, the tracks had averaged $2 million in pretax profits for the five years before Kenton bought them. During the last 1960s and early 1970s the tracks had averaged more than 5,000 fans a night and a handle of $300,000.
"We had hopes of keeping the tracks open," said Trenk. "But we needed a unified effort from the public, horsemen and (us) and we didn't see any movement."
The tracks had pushed for a lower West Virginia parimutuel tax on winnings and Sunday racing, which was passed by the House of Delegates but was votd down in the Senate last year.
"I've known there have been serious problems at Charles Town but I'm shocked by it like anybody else," said William Watson, chairman of the West Virginia Racing Commission. "I don't fully ubderstand what motivated their (management's) decision.
"We have to find out what prompted their decision," Watson added. "We peed to try to find out what their problems are. Hopefully within the next day or so we'll find out how we should proceed.
"I'm optimistic that racing will return to Charles Town. Ti's not an irrevocable situation."
"We have, over the course of the last two months, had meetings with the management," said Frank Cole, president of the West Virginia Union of Mutuel Clerks Local 533. "They told us of their circumstances, that they weren't getting the desired return back from their investment."
"I'm completely frustrated at this point I don't know what to think," said Cole, who had scheduled a meeting for Friday to gain a union endorsement to help the tracks.
"The only reaction I have now is one of shock. It means that 212 of us are out of work. It gives us nothing but the problem of disillusionment. If it goes, we go."
West Virginia Gov. Jay Rockefeller, informed of the closing, said the decision "is a disservice to the region and the state. The race track has become a basic part of Jefferson County and the eastern panhandle's economy."
The tax loss to the state was estimated at $12 million annually by Carolyn Snyder, a former member of the House of Delegates and the governor's representative in the eastern panhandle.
"This will touch everybody in this county in one way or another," she said. "It's just unreal.It's a disaster for us. Racing is the industry in this county."
Reaction last night in Charles Town, where local businssmen survive on the tracks' draw, was bitter and gloomy.
"What the hell are they going to do with it, just close it down?" asked Oliver Kastle, head of the local retailers' association. "I don't know what to say. I'm at a loss to say anything."
"It's going to be a real blow to the local business community," said State Del. James Moler.
"I think all this is a squeeze on the State of West Virginia to get them to give the track a better tax break," said Kelley Lance Jr., mayor of neighboring Ranson. "It's going to mean a pretty big thing for the community around here, because so many jobs depend on the track."
Including part-time positions, the race tracks generate about 5,500 jobs when they are open and have an average daily payroll of $10,000.
In October, when a referendum in Virginia threatened to bring competing tracks next door, Charles Town residents were gloomily predicting huge losses and unemployment for the community. But Kenton Corp. Vic President Jan R. Sussman, by contrast, said the tracks would survive even if racing came to Virginia. Sussman, sent to Charles Town by Kenton to drum up new business, was unavailable for comment yesterday.
As an economy move, the Shenandoah Corp. had planned to close Shenandoah Downs, which had opened in 1959, and concentrate on improving Charles Town. More than $1.5 million was spent last year to renovate Charles Town Turf Club, Trenk said.
The race track venture was Kenton's first in the entertainment-sports field. The New York-based firm filed for bankruptcy in 1973 but settled with its creditors in 1975.
Other Kenton interests include a small toy company; International Health Co., which runs 12 outpatient kidney dialysis centers, and 20 percent of Rapid American Corp., which has a chain of dime stores.
Prior to buying the West Virginia tracks, Kenton had developed the Kenton Center -- now known as Jennifer Mall -- at 44th and Jenifer streets NW in Washington. The center was closed at the time of Kenton's bank-ruptcy after failing to attracting enough quality stores.
Standard and Poor's reported Kenton Corp. had revenues of $24 million in 1978 and earnings of $2.7 million.