Oct. 31, 2005 Some V.I. business people have said that the Economic Development Commission is in its last throes because the rules of the EDC game just kept changing.
Chris Elliot, partner in the proposed William and Punch development, said at a Senate hearing Monday night that the same thing could happen to the Casino and Resort Act of 1995 if legislators keep fiddling with it.
The hearing was not exactly about changing the Casino Act. The senators were considering legislation to change zoning regulations so gambling machines could be placed on land designated for public use.
The action was specifically designed to help TRAXCO, a subsidiary of Treasure Bay V.I. Corp., which owns Divi Carina Bay Casino, by letting it have slot machines at the Randall "Doc" James Race Track on St. Croix.
Dennis Brow, general manager for TRAXCO, said the machines were needed so TRAXCO could quit losing money and keep horse racing at the track.
"Currently, TRAXCO is operating at a loss of approximately $650,000 for a year, an average of $73,000 monthly," Brow said. "As much as we are committed and will do everything to ensure that the industry survives, the reality is that we cannot sustain these losses over time."
However, Elliot said the granting the zoning change "would open a Pandora's box." He said that the 80 machines proposed for the race track did not bother him, but "changing the landscape" concerning gambling laws in the Virgin Islands did.
"You are not worried about the horse track today, but that it might be the dog track tomorrow," said Sen. Roosevelt David.
Joseph Sinicrope, representing developers proposing a casino at Carambola Resort, also testified.
"The installation and operation of such machines at the racetrack would violate both the spirit and the letter of the law," Sinicrope said.
He said the intention of the law was to encourage development on St. Croix especially the building of more hotel rooms. Allowing Divi to expand its gambling operation through TRAXCO to the race track would not add any more hotel rooms. It was also noted that gambling at the race track would involve mostly local people. Divi admits that most of its business at the casino is with local people and this is a concern for many V.I. officials.
"I love horse racing," Sen. President Lorraine Berry said. "I want to see it continue on St. Croix."
She also said she did not want to do anything that would discourage any more resort development on St. Croix, but added, "We are in the grip of cynicism. We keep getting promises of hotel rooms and casinos, but nothing happens."
Eileen Petersen, chair of the Casino Control Commission, testified that she was in support of the machines. This support drew many questions from senators because they were all familiar with her vocal opposition to the video lottery terminals on St. Thomas. She said that the machines proposed for the race track were not VLTs, nor were they exactly slot machines.
Casino Control Commission member Devin Carrington said the proposed machines were different from regular slot machines because they would be controlled by a central server located at Divi. He said true slot machines had their "brain" inside them. Senators did not seem to buy this qualification and continued to call the machines slot machines.
Also testifying in support of the proposal was Dean Plaskett, commissioner of Planning and Natural Resources. He said a lot of issues could be cleared up if the amendment to the zoning regulation concerning public land was addressed correctly.
He said some public lands were now in nonconforming status. He said both airports are on land that is zoned for public use and both of them have areas where alcohol is sold. He said the public land should be zoned to allow – along with casinos — bars, taverns and hotels. The V.I. government is considering a private-public partnership in developing a hotel on public land across from Henry E. Rohlsen Airport on St. Croix. He said there would have to be restrictions in the law such as keeping taverns and casinos at least 1,000 feet away from schools and churches.
Sen. Craig Barshinger was most outspoken critical of the proposal.
"I look at gambling as a tax on the mathematically challenged," Barshinger said. "I will have no part in this wholesale change."
He did say that he would entertain the possibility of just making a zoning change for specifically the area of the race track instead of all public land.
After six hours of receiving testimony and questioning testifiers, Berry said the next step should be a roundtable meeting between all interested parties where a solution acceptable to all could be found.
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