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Steve Novotney Says, "To Veto or Not To?"

There's no gambling at The Highlands in Ohio County. Never has been.

The Perkins Restaurant in Wheeling has a limited video lottery parlor, and so do most bars and restaurants in the Friendly City and throughout Ohio County, but not a single business at the Highlands development is permitted to participate.

It's even in the lease.

"If that were to change here at The Highlands, it would only be after a lot of conversations with the public," said Ohio County Commissioner Orphy Klempa. "But that covenant has been in every agreement we have signed with the companies who have located here because it came from the people when this whole thing was getting started.

"I don't want to speak for the county's other two commissioners (Randy Wharton and Tim McCormick), but for that to ever change there would have to be a lot of public input," he explained. "With that said, the land that makes up The Highlands is not the only land in this area. There is a lot more privately owned land in this area and right off that exit ramp."

I asked Klempa about gambling on Highlands soil because of the relocation language included in Senate Bill 437, approved legislation that would de-couple video lottery and live greyhound racing and steal the $13.6 million in the West Virginia Greyhound Breeders Development Fund. It now sits on the desk of Gov. Jim Justice.

Oh, and if this bill is made law, Wheeling Island Casino would be allowed to move off Wheeling Island and out of the city of Wheeling, and that's a move that would catastrophically diminish the city's downtown TIF District, eliminate more than $1 million that is flowed toward the pension funds for Wheeling's police officers and firefighters, and erase more than 1,100 local jobs. And you thought the state was in a budget crisis and desperate for living-wage jobs and to retain current citizens, right?

Well, it seems some agenda items are simply more important.

House Speaker Tim Armstead represents a portion of Kanawha County, and by all accounts he is anti-gaming. When the city of Wheeling rightfully hosted the state's official Sesquicentennial Celebration in June 2013, he, along with 41 other lawmakers, refused their accommodations at the casino's hotel. He has voted against every piece of proposed legislation related to enhancing the industries since becoming a member of the Legislature in 1999.

The problem is that Armstead is the Speaker of the House for some misguided reason and has power of the agenda; if he wants something, he gets it; if he wants to kill something, like the greyhound industry, he gets that, too.

Unless, of course, Gov. Justice vetoes the bill and sends Senate Bill 437 back to both chambers for continued debate in an effort to override, and if that happens, people like Sens. Weld and Maroney will have another chance, and so would Dels. Erikka Storch and Shawn Fluharty. All four lawmakers represented the Northern Panhandle very well during the initial process, and each of them is hoping for one more floor speech.

Maybe that's when their respective colleagues will finally hear what they need in order to vote in favor of retaining the historical industry that continues to employee people, generate dollars for the state, and allow for the two tracks to possess a competitive edge over the competition in neighboring states. Live greyhound racing will not last forever, and even those in the industry will admit that, but in Wheeling an increase was realized from 2015 to 2016.

You wouldn't know that, though, based on the erroneous facts offered during the floor debates in the Senate and House, and certainly not from recent TV ads released by the casino. Those commercials have concentrated on the truly terrific food available at four different restaurants, the live entertainment inside the 1,000-seat Showroom, and on the 1,400 slot machines and live table games.

Not a dog in sight, though, and they are cute little creatures, too.

But now it's up to Gov. Justice at this point, and perhaps the worst part of it all is that you and I will find out the fate of the greyhounds at the same time the kennel owners do.

(Photo by Steve Novotney)

Categories: Commentary