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Gambling: The Talk of the Towns

Washington County residents greet new casino and resort with excitement and caution

Gregg Hennigan

The Gazette

August 29, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of The Gazette.]

  Gina Cooper hears many conversations as a waitress at the Chat & Chew, a Wellman restaurant her parents own.

  And of late, a lot of the talk has been focused on Riverside Casino & Golf Resort, which opens Thursday about 15 miles east of Wellman in northern Washington County.

  Much of it has been positive, she said. ‘‘I think it’s awesome.’’ said Cooper, 41, who hopes casino traffic will drive more people to the Chat & Chew.

  ‘‘There’s a lot of people excited.’’ Two years after Washington County voters barely approved a referendum to allow gambling, most of a little more than a dozen people interviewed last week by The Gazette expressed support for the casino, though some did so with reservations.

 The $140 million casino and resort is expected to employ between 900 and 950 people, making it the county’s largest employer. The casino estimates that up to 40 percent of its employees will be from Washington County, and 35 percent from Johnson County. Diane Wellington, 48, of Washington, said that’s important following the closing of a couple of large area factories in the past few years. ‘‘They’ve lost a lot of jobs around here in recent years,’’ she said.

  The casino has been a hot topic for more than two years. In August 2004, voters approved the gambling referendum by a vote of 4,099 to 3,747. The 7,846 total voters represented 53 percent of Washington County’s 14,800 registered voters [27.67%].

  ‘‘That is an unusually high turnout for a non-presidential (election),’’ County Auditor Bill Fredrick said.

  Casino CEO Dan Kehl said last week support has grown as the project has progressed and people have seen that it will be a reality.

  When completed next summer, it will include 58,000-square-feet of gaming space, a 200-room hotel, three restaurants, a spa, an events center and an 18-hole golf course.

  In its first year, the resort is projected to make $93 million — $83 million of that from gaming — and attract 1.3 million visitors.

  ‘‘It’s apparent to me that a lot of people have changed their opinion,’’ Kehl said.

  One person who has not is Dale Torpey, 61, a Washington banker and a leader of the anti-gambling effort during the referendum campaign.

  ‘‘I will never be convinced that taking money from people and profiting from it makes sense,’’ he said.

  Harold Neuweg, 66, of West Point, who was visiting Washington last week, said he doesn’t gamble but has no problem with someone else doing so.

  ‘‘But I’d hate to see people lose their homes,’’ he said.

  Rather than hurt households, Riverside Mayor Bill Poch said the $1.7 million the city will receive annually from casino taxes will help his town of about 960 people attract more residents and businesses and fund projects such as water, sewer and street upgrades.

  ‘‘Actually, I feel lucky, from a mayor and (city) council’s standpoint, of being in the right place at the right time,’’ he said.

  Non-profit organizations and the county’s nine incorporated cities are in line to share an estimated $3.2 million the casino foundation, which holds the casino’s gaming license, is to distribute annually.

  Clayton Sexton, 80, who lives about three miles from the casino in rural Riverside, said he hopes it helps the town prosper. But he was neutral on whether the casino was good or bad for the area. ‘‘It doesn’t make any difference (to me) one way or another,’’ Sexton said.