The number of retail gambling properties in West Virginia could nearly double if House lawmakers concur with their peers in the Senate. SB 62 easily passed a floor vote by senators on Feb. 28, with 25 in favor and only eight opposed. If the bill becomes law, it will authorize each of the state’s four racetrack operators to open a secondary gaming location.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Eric Nelson, told MetroNews that it’s the third time the state has attempted such a bill. All three efforts have passed in one half of the legislature, only to fail in the other. However, the House and Senate have each had their turn being the one to nix the idea.
The first effort, in 2019, originated in the House but died in the Senate Finance Committee. On the other hand, last year’s effort started in the Senate but sputtered out after the House Judiciary and Finance Committees failed to act.
Fortunately, some early wrinkles have been ironed out of the bill over time. For one thing, the intent of the 2019 bill was primarily to help one struggling operator: Wheeling Island. Sen. Nelson is framing the latest effort as more about revitalizing the state’s struggling shopping centers. Similar satellite casinos in Pennsylvania have used spaces left vacant by department stores that have gone out of business.
As it stands, West Virginia has five retail gaming properties:
- The Greenbrier
- Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races
- Wheeling Island Hotel Casino Racetrack
- Mardi Gras Casino and Resort
- Mountaineer Casino Racetrack and Resort
Of these, only the Greenbrier is a true standalone casino and would not benefit from the bill. The other four are racetracks that the state authorized to conduct other gaming activities beginning in 1994.
Proposed Restrictions on WV Satellite Casinos
Despite the similar intent, West Virginia’s plan differs substantially from Pennsylvania’s satellite casino bill. The latter, which passed in 2016, established a competitive bidding process for the “Category 4” licenses. As a result, some operators ended up with multiple satellite locations, while others didn’t get any.
By contrast, the West Virginia bill allows exactly one additional location per operator. These satellites, like the main properties, could feature the following:
- Video lottery terminals
- Table games
- Sports betting kiosks, and
- Parimutuel simulcast racebooks
Unlike the main locations, they’d be exempt from the requirement to have a racetrack connected to the property. However, they would face additional restrictions:
- The secondary property must be in the same county as the primary location
- Voters in the county must approve the secondary location by referendum
- The operator must guarantee that it will never scale down its operations at the primary location
- The operator must pay a $250,000 annual fee in addition to its existing licensing payments
The bill leaves it up to the West Virginia Lottery, which regulates gaming in the state, to set the cap on the number of tables and machines at the secondary locations. However, even the primary locations have a limit of 400 video lottery terminals, which is lower than the number of slots permitted at Pennsylvania satellite casinos. Therefore, these will not be big establishments.
Time is Short for the WV Satellite Casino Bill
Each of West Virginia’s five casino operators has the right to offer online gambling. However, only three do so:
- The Greenbrier (BetMGM and FanDuel)
- Hollywood (DraftKings and PointsBet)
- Mountaineer (BetRivers and Caesars)
Mardi Gras and Wheeling Island do offer retail sports betting. However, having decided to sit out the WV online casino market, they may have the most to gain from a secondary location.
If the bill is to succeed, it will have to do so quickly. West Virginia has short legislative sessions, often an impediment to gambling expansion. This year’s session ends on March 11, so SB 62 has just over a week to get a vote in the House.