Nov. 29, 2005 Allowing slot machines at Randall "Doc" James Racetrack was initially promoted as a simple matter by advocates Barbara Shattles, vice president, TRAXCO, and General Manager Dennis Brow, TRAXCO but after four recent meetings of senators the issue seems to keep getting more complicated.
And it will go through at least two more Senate meetings, after members of the Economic Development, Planning and Environmental Protection Committee Tuesday moved it on to the Rules Committee for the second time.
The move forward received no help from Neville James, committee chairman. He voted against moving it forward, but the other four members present, Sens. Norman Jn Baptiste, Liston A. Davis, Usie Richards and Celestino A. White Sr., approved moving the request for a variance out of their committee. Committee members Sens. Craig Barshinger and Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg were absent.
James received support for his position from non-committee members Sens. Ronald Russell and Juan Figueroa-Serville, who showed up at the meeting. The issue generated so much attention that Senate President Lorraine Berry, who rarely attends committee meetings on St. Croix when she is not a member of the committee, even made an appearance. Berry said she expected the meeting to be more about TRAXCO's financial status, but documentation from TRAXCO was lacking. Brow said he never received a written request for any documents.
Senators who advocated the bill framed the argument as the "only way of saving horse racing on St. Croix." They said horse racing was a vital part of Crucian culture.
Opponents said there was more going on then meets the eye. They said allowing gaming devices in a non-resort area was in fact trashing the Casino Control Act and ruining St. Croix's chances for resort development.
James said, "Let's deal with the real thing. Divi wants to expand its casino. Divi does not want to concede anything. It wants to keep all the money it makes off the people of the Virgin Islands."
He ran through some calculations and said the Divi probably cleared close to $6 million in profits last year. Divi representatives shook their heads, but gave no verbal response.
The man who spoke with the most heat was Figueroa-Serville. He saw the "back-dooring in" of allowing slots away from resort developments as a plot to keep St. Croix from developing. He said some people saw the possibility of a strong St. Croix as a threat to St. Thomas. He said this measure was just a method by which St. Croix would be "plundered" again.
He said granting this variance would "be the beginning of turning St. Croix into a gambling hell hole and the end of its chances for economic development."
Brow testified that he did not know when the machines could be installed and exactly how much TRAXCO could make from the 80 machines. However, he said that if the government gave approval for the machines, TRAXCO could then borrow money to put on races at the track again. (See "TRAXCO Shuts Down Operations at Racetrack").
When Davis questioned whether the machines would be use as "leverage for loans," Shattles replied, "I would not use the word leverage."
The Thanksgiving races were not held and all future races have been suspended at the track. Brow said that TRAXCO could not afford to keep losing money. He said original budgeting allowed for TRAXCO to lose a half million dollars over the first few years, but that company had already lost that amount of money in nine months of operation.
Jn Baptiste said he was concerned about job creation. Brow said, after the recent layoff, that TRAXCO only employed three people. He said before the layoff it employed 18 and could double that number if it could make the racetrack the entertainment center it wanted to make of it.
Brow and Shattles have posited that the machines would not really define an off-site casino because the brains of the machines would be located at Divi Resort.
James said, "I am not falling for that. If you bet your money at the racetrack and get your winnings at the racetrack, you are not gambling at the casino. That makes no sense."
Yvonne Tharpes, acting chief legal counsel for the Senate, wrote a 16-page opinion which raised several concerns about the effort that would allow gaming devices in area zoned "P" or for public use. She wrote, "The legislature should take a hard look at how the proposed amendment to the zoning code to allow for casino gaming devises in the Public Zoning District and the repeal by implication of the hotel construction requirements of the Casino and Resort Control Act benefit the public."
Todd Newman, attorney for TRAXCO, said during a recess that he did not think the granting of the variance would open up potential for gambling devices to go everywhere on the island. He said the legislation specifically referred to placing machines at a racetrack.
Attorney Kevin Rames, who is a partner in the proposed William and Punch development, said there were "real people with serious money" behind the William and Punch proposal. He said they were concerned about whether the Senate was going to uphold the integrity of the Casino Control Act.
He added that it might be better, as James suggested, handling the TRAXCO request with legislation that addresses all aspects of a racino.
White said that the opponents of the measure made some good points but he was concerned it would just be another case of "We came. We met. We spun our wheels again." He said his effort in introducing an amendment to get the bill moving was to "get something resolved."
TRAXCO is a subsidiary of Treasure Bay V.I. Corp. Treasure Bay is also the parent company of Divi Bay Casino. Shattles is also the general manager of Divi.
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