Before any lawmaker is allowed to vote on whether to legalize video poker in bars, restaurants and private clubs, they should be forced to take a field trip to Weirton West Virginia. Pile them all into buses and make the pilgrimage so they can see first-hand what expanded gambling can do to small communities.
I grew up in the Ohio Valley, so I've been to Weirton many times in my life. But no trip there was more disturbing then the one I took in June 2005.
It was my first cover story for City Paper and Pennsylvania had just handed out it first slots licenses.
Originally, West Virginia opened slot casinos to save local racetracks and be a source of additional revenue. Shortly after that, the state decided that too much money was escaping its clutches by way of illegal video poker machines. So it decided to legalize the machines, with the money going to pay for college tuition for qualified students.
Sound familiar? Pennsylvania isn't just following West Virginia's plan: We're stealing the playbook.
As of 2005, Weirton was littered with slot parlors in the rear of restaurants, bars, Elks' Clubs, American Legion Halls, car washes, ice cream shops, donut shops and newsstands. And there were some businesses constructed simply as a means to house the machines — up to five per establishment. There were 9,000 across the state. There were 98 slot parlors in Weirton alone, a town of 20,000 — plus two casinos about 30 minutes to the north and south.
This working-class town has slots establishments next to churches and across from city hall. The city had become a laughingstock, and one former state representative told me that even though the money was going to pay college tuitions, things weren't exactly working out as the state had planned.
"I don't think that the decision to allow the gray machines on such a large scale ... was really thought out," former state Delegate Joe DeLong said. "But at this point it's tied specifically to a program that we can't afford to abandon because of the commitments we made."
That's always been a problem when states get a taste of gambling money: They want more and more. There are community leaders and talk radio hosts who have urged the state legalize the machines in the bars, to give the mom-and-pop taverns a shot at some of the cash generated by gambling.
The whole reason places like Las Vegas succeed is because they are vacation destinations. Gambling was just part of the puzzle, and the local economy depended on people coming from outside the area, bringing disposable income with them. Sure locals gamble in Vegas, but they depend on tourists. If Gov. Rendell's plan to legalize video poker goes through, it won't be some couple vacationing from Las Vegas dropping money into the slot machines in the back of the Moose Lodge. It's going to be your neighbors tossing in dollars they can ill-afford to lose.
But we can't say we weren't warned.
"Look at Pennsylvania," Weirton anti-gambling activist Jody Kraina told me back in 2005. "They're sitting where West Virginia sat years ago … But they need to look very closely at where we are now. Once you allow those things in here, it's Katie bar the door."