CHARLES TOWN – After continuing a discussion from two weeks ago, the Charles Town City Council on Monday turned down a proposal to allow more video slot machines in the city’s downtown retail district.

Council members voted 6-2 to accept a recommendation from the city’s Planning Commission to keep zoning restrictions prohibiting the gambling machines as a downtown commercial activity.  

After all was said, a council majority agreed that too few city residents have expressed a need or desire to expand gambling activity in the downtown. Some of those council members also said the issue shouldn’t distract city officials from more pressing priorities.

“I’m not for or against video lottery at all,” said Councilman Michael George. “I just don’t think it’s worth the effort to go through all these steps, spend all this time, staff time, money … to do all the rezoning. … We could have spent this time and money on other things that would have a bigger impact in our downtown.” 

“We have growth going crazy in this city that we need to see the Planning Commission to start working on,” agreed Councilman Jeff Hynes. “We just set out a strategic plan for the next 18 to 24 months. I’m ready to get to work on that.”

Bars and restaurants can operate video machines in the city’s industrial-zoned areas outside the downtown. City officials explicitly banned the machines downtown when they updated zoning regulations in 2012. However, at the same time, seven existing businesses and organizations were allowed to continue operating machines they already had. 

Recently, the owners of Inkwell’s Tavern on West Washington Street asked city officials to modify zoning restrictions to permit more downtown businesses to operate video slot machines. The tavern’s owners sought to offer video slots as a revenue sidelight. 

In September, the Planning Commission issued a recommendation to keep the current zoning ordinances as they are. The commissioners and city staff said the request did not fit goals outlined in the city’s “Historically Hip” comprehensive zoning plan, which was last updated in 2018.

Councilman Jim Kratovil said video slot machines—also referred to as video lotteries—could financially strengthen some downtown businesses, a goal highlighted in the comprehensive plan.

City Manager Daryl Hennessy outlined a list of about a half-dozen possible restrictions that the council could theoretically impose on the games of chance. Those options include limiting where the machines are located, how much business space they can occupy and what share of overall revenue they can generate for a business.

Councilwoman Jean Petti, who once operated video slot machines in a Ranson tavern she previously owned, said the proposed restrictions Hennessy offered would be reasonable and workable for city officials, residents and business owners. 

“I do think we need to proceed cautiously on upholding a ban on a legal business,” she said. 

Petti and Kratovil cast the two votes against a measure that essentially stopped further consideration of the proposal to permit more video gambling machines in the downtown.

Hynes and Councilwoman Julie Philabaum were among the council members who said that gambling was out of synch with the family-friendly activities citizens wanted to encourage in the downtown under the comprehensive plan. 

Philabaum cited a goal from the plan that downtown commercial activity should help replace dwindling gambling tax revenues from the Hollywood Casino on the eastern end of Washington Street. The casino offers 3,000 video slot machines. “Nothing under the goal of increasing economic vitality through downtown and neighborhood revitalization can be interpreted to allow for this zoning change,” she said.

Philabaum also pointed out the findings of a survey of area residents that was recently completed. Not a single person surveyed selected video lottery or gambling as something the downtown should have, she said. 

“We have wasted eight months of our time and the city’s limited resources on this when it clearly is not consistent with the comprehensive plan,” she added. City staff could have spent the same time, for example, working a council goal to post “wayfinding signs” that would help direct more cash-spending visitors to downtown businesses, she said.

Councilwoman Rikki Twyford largely agreed. 

“I feel like we are trying to make significant changes and exceptions to allow for something that’s not significantly warranted or requested,” she said. “And I feel like, at this point, we are putting our respect and our admiration for one business and those owners over the greater good for the community if we make these significant changes.” 

“I don’t feel like it’s what our citizens have asked for,” she added. “I think all of us have had more requests to not approve this than we have had requests to approve it, and I kind of think that’s what it boils down to.”

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