Island cutting back on greyhound racing

WHEELING – Needing to cut costs in the face of formidable competition from new facilities in Ohio and Pennsylvania, Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack is reducing its number of greyhound races.

“Racing is a declining industry. It is now less than 10 percent of our business,” said Jim Simms, president and general manager. “We are doing everything we can do. We have to try to keep all of our businesses solvent.”

Just a few years ago, the Wheeling track – along with Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort in Chester – held a virtual monopoly over the gambling market in northern West Virginia, as well as in Pennsylvania and Ohio because those states lacked slot machines and table games.

However, with new facilities such as the Hollywood Casino Columbus and the Rivers Casino in downtown Pittsburgh, both Wheeling Island and Mountaineer have been losing customers.”The Ohio casinos, as well as the winter, are really hurting us. When it is cold, people are less willing to travel,” Simms said. “We are looking at a very difficult first quarter.”

After meeting with the West Virginia Racing Commission, Wheeling track officials will only hold 107 greyhound races per week this year, which is down from 115 per week in 2012. However, Simms said he previously received “conditional approval” to only hold 101 per week, a move that he said could have saved the track $100,000 per week. “We built that ($100,000 per week) savings into our new plans,” he said.

However, Simms said a January meeting before the commission resulted in commission officials declaring the track needed to have the full 115 weekly races again. Following a compromise this week, Simms said the number now will be 107 runnings per week. He did not know Wednesday precisely how this would impact his company’s budget.

Long before slot machines or poker tables were the main attractions at Wheeling Island, the facility was primarily a greyhound racing track. Island officials paid $450,000 to renovate the greyhound track in 2010 as a way to help prevent injuries to the dogs.

From upgrading the slot machines to remodeling the restaurants and ventilation systems, Simms said his company has spent millions in facility improvements over the past two years.

“We would definitely be interested in revisiting our state tax rates. Less profit means less money for us to spend on attracting customers,” Simms said, noting he may approach the West Virginia Legislature regarding the matter.

Much of the impetus for legalizing table gambling – live poker, craps, roulette, blackjack and other games involving dealers – in West Virginia in 2007 centered around Wheeling Island and Mountaineer projecting revenue losses when Pennsylvania plugged in its slot machines. Mountain State leaders eventually agreed to allow table gambling, but decided to charge each of the state’s four racetracks a $2.5 million annual fee and apply a 35 percent tax on the activity.

At Mountaineer, General Manager Chris Kern said upgrades are ongoing, featuring new games and programming to offer guests a “pleasant” experience.

“Our recent upgrades include bright, new carpeting, new slot bases and chairs and a new inviting layout in the Uptown and Downtown gaming rooms,” he said.

“We are always updating our games to offer our guests the newest and most exciting slot gaming experience,” Kern added.