CHARLES TOWN – Should more downtown Charles Town bars and taverns be allowed to operate video slot machines?
Eight City Council members were divided down the middle in casting votes to answer the question on Monday.
Inkwell’s Tavern on West Washington Street initiated the matter when its owners sought a zoning ordinance change to allow downtown businesses the opportunity to operate the gambling machines as an additional source of revenue.
How to balance support for downtown businesses while maintaining a family-friendly environment was a primary focus of the council members’ discussion.
On one side was Council member Jean Petti, a businesswoman who previously operated a bar in Ranson that had video slot machines. She prefaced her comments that she’s a mother with 10 children who doesn’t drink alcohol or gamble. She said allowing properly regulated video slot machines could financially bolster some downtown businesses.
Petti said: “I feel that we are presently effectively creating a hardship for [businesses] by denying the businesses—that have chosen our city and love our city and contribute to our city—the competitive advantage that is enjoyed by similar businesses in neighboring locations.”
Petti and Council members Jim Kratovil, Kevin Tester and Elizabeth Ricketts voted in favor of reconsidering whether to allow video slot machines in the downtown commercial district.
Councilwoman Rikki Twyford said she supported the efforts of Inkwell’s Tavern and other downtown proprietors to run successful businesses. But when she talked with many city residents during her campaign to serve on the council, nobody mentioned the need to encourage more video slot machine gambling in the city. “But I did have a lot of requests for other businesses and a lot of requests for the way we handle downtown,” she said.
However, Twyford pointed out that when Inkwell’s Tavern began its operations at its current location—and at a previous storefront across West Washington Street—its owners knew the location didn’t allow for video slot machine gambling.
“I think we have other ways to support our downtown businesses other than this particular exception,” she said.
Twyford and Council members Michael George, Julie Philabaum and Jeff Hynes voted against starting a process to possibly allow video slot machines in the downtown.
Mayor Bob Trainor declined to cast his vote to decide to sway the matter. After the meeting, he said he held back his vote to allow the council to determine the outcome.
The council members formally agreed to discuss the issue further at its Nov. 15 meeting.
Seven public establishments in the city, including some grandfathered in 2012 when the city updated its comprehensive zoning plan, already such video slot machines for their patrons. The slot machines, nearly identical to the 1,300 machines available up East Washington Street at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, are licensed and regulated by the West Virginia Lottery Commission. The West Virginia Beverage Control Administration also regulates video slot machines where alcohol is sold.
Through its zoning code, the city can also impose its own restrictions on the video slot machines, including their placement and use.
Video slot machines are permitted as a special regulated use in general commercial zones outside the city’s mixed-use downtown district. Slot machines were banned in the downtown through an ordinance change in 2012, but the existing slot machines were allowed to continue.
To alter the city’s zoning ordinances to accommodate Inkwell’s Tavern’s request, council members must decide that the request is consistent with the city’s broad guidelines set out in its comprehensive development plan, advised City Manager Daryl Hennessy. The council can also make the ordinance change, he said, if it determines the downtown’s physical, economic or social conditions have changed enough since the comprehensive plan was updated in 2018 to warrant the zoning ordinance change.
Trainor, however, said the council, as the city’s lawmaking body, has broad discretion to change the city’s ordinances.
The Charles Town Planning Commission has already reviewed the rezoning change request. The commission voted on Sept. 27 against changing a zoning ordinance to allow video slot machines in the downtown district.
Advising council members on Monday, Hennessy explained that the city collects about 10 percent of a 2 percent state tax on video slot machine proceeds. And council members generally agreed the amount the city would collect from such activity would be modest compared to the city’s overall $4.7 million general operating budget.
Police Chief Chris Kutcher said his review of crime reports showed no connection to increased crimes related to the seven city bars and taverns that now operate video slot machines. Those establishments are the Charles Town VFW Post 3522, the Jackson-Perks American Legion Post 71, the Turf Lounge, Paddy’s Irish Pub, Down Under, Julia’s Ctown and the KCR Barrel Saloon.
On Monday, Hynes, a Planning Commission member, said he and other commission members thought Inkwell’s Tavern’s proposal wasn’t consistent with the city’s current “Historically Hip” comprehensive development plan.
Although sympathetic that businesses such as Inkwell’s Tavern need to be financially viable, Hynes said he believes expanding video slot machines conflicted with the city’s long-term vision and ongoing efforts to establish a thriving, family-oriented commercial environment for the downtown.
Hynes also said zoning ordinances can be upheld in ways the council might not envision when businesses request special exemptions for economic hardship.
But Kratovil pointed out that the comprehensive plan also seeks to support an economically thriving downtown.
“We want to put more businesses downtown,” he commented. “I think the comprehensive plan sort of says, let’s build up the downtown.”
Kratovil said he thought only “three or four potential locations in the downtown area” could feasibly accommodate an establishment that would want and could benefit from video slot machines. He said the council could also establish requirements such as minimum-square-foot operating spaces that could limit the machines.
Thoughtful regulation, where people wouldn’t see or know about the slot machines, could protect a family-friendly environment sought for the downtown, Kratovil said. In addition, slot machines could be a feature of “upscale” restaurants city officials want to attract to the downtown, he said.
Two weeks from now council members resume their discussion to determine whether to take additional action.