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Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott Fears Impact Of Greyhound Breeders’ Fund Loss

Photo by Casey Junkins Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott converses with City Clerk Janice Jones during a break in a Tuesday meeting.

WHEELING — Mayor Glenn Elliott retains hope members of the West Virginia Legislature will not eliminate the Greyhound Breeding Development Fund, and said the community must realize how much of a negative impact this could eventually have on Wheeling.

“We are pulling every lever we can to make sure folks know this is something we consider to be detrimental to the city,” Elliott said Tuesday.

As early as today, the GOP-led House of Delegates could pass House Bill 3107 to end the fund, which results in distributions to greyhound breeders whose animals run at either Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack or at the Mardi Gras Casino and Resort near Charleston.

A similar bill, Senate Bill 437, already passed in the Senate despite fierce opposition from Northern Panhandle Sens. Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, and Mike Maroney, R-Marshall. It is scheduled for a second reading in the House today.

Delegates Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, and several others in the Northern Panhandle have made it clear they will oppose the legislation, but they may not have the numbers to stop it.

The Republican leadership in Charleston believes it is justified in the effort to save $15 million per year amid a tight budgetary situation. Steve Sarras, president of the West Virginia Kennel Owners Association, has said there is no way his industry can survive if the state eliminates the payments to breeders, calling it “a death blow.”

“Greyhound racing is a big part of what they do there. If you take that away, you are going to undermine their incentives to stay there,” Elliott said.

Presently, the Wheeling track along with others throughout the state must hold a certain number of races in order to operate slot machines and table games. However, the legislation would allow “decoupling,” which would allow casinos to run slots and table games without racing.

Elliott said West Virginia’s budget problems could result in Wheeling’s own budget dilemma.

“Its impact on our budget would be extreme, especially if the casino were to ultimately leave the city of Wheeling,” Elliott said.

In City Manager Robert Herron’s $34 million budget for fiscal 2017-18, revenue directly attributable to the casino exceeds $1 million. Portions of the city’s revenue from hotel/motel tax, wine and liquor tax and several other taxes also result from the presence of the track.

“People need to realize that if this bill is to be passed — and greyhound racing is decoupled — and that paves the way for the casino, ultimately, to leave — that they are going to be looking at the prospect of tax increases in Wheeling for us just to keep things as they are,” Elliott said.

Elliott said he has heard of the possibility of the casino, absent greyhound racing, moving to The Highlands. There, the potential gambling center would still have easy access from Interstate 70, but would not face the prospect of Ohio River flooding and could avoid certain city of Wheeling taxes.

“It is not hyperbole — this is real,” Elliott said.

Orphy Klempa serves as both an Ohio County commissioner and a member of the Ohio County Development Authority, which is responsible for developing The Highlands. Klempa said The Highlands does not permit video lottery machines or table gambling to take place on the property.

“I have not heard of that,” Klempa said of the potential for a casino at The Highlands. “And I’m pretty sure I would hear about it.”

Kim Florence, president and general manager of the Wheeling track, could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

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