Future of Greyhound Racing in West Virginia Hangs in the Balance
Greyhound Racing is a sport that has long been a point of contention around the world. In the US the industry was once a thriving one. West Virginia in particular was a region of distinction in the industry. Today, it seems the future of racing in the state is a bleak one as legislators are proposing a bill with the aim to annul annual payments made to breeders. The fund in question is a direct recipient of a portion of losses on all slot machines that are installed at the state’s Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack.
The decision being considered by state legislators has breeders up in arms, who are contesting that without those funds the industry would collapse within the year. The $15 million fund is called the Breeder’s Fund and is set up to cover expenses relating to the care and raising of the industry’s racing dogs. The money is intended to provide everything a dog needs, including supplements, shelter, training, grooming, and the substantial quantity of meat, in most cases up to 2.5 pounds, each animal consumes a day. Breeders and Kennels around the state receive a portion of the funds to care for and raise the animals. Those whose dogs place well in races receive additional purse funds as incentive for their continued operations.
Breeder Steve Sarras put it plainly how the budget cuts would affect those in the industry in a report published by the Weirton Daily Times, saying
“When you take away the breeders’ fund, you unemploy anyone who is involved in the industry in West Virginia.” Adding his prognostication, “If you take that breeders’ fund money, this industry is bust as of July 1.”
What Would Happen if This Bill is Passed?
It is estimated the drying up of funds would lead to the closure of near every kennel in the state, resulting in a loss of up to 1,700 jobs. Additionally, the closings would lead to near 6,000 dogs requiring immediate adoption or face euthanasia.
Representative Erikka Storch of Ohio County is in the same corner as Sarras when it comes to protecting breeders and by proxy the future of the racing industry in West Virginia. Storch, who also serves on the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce, pointed out the subsequent economic impacts on the region following such a decision. She alluded to the decision being a shortsighted one and warned her colleagues that,
“The Northern Panhandle would be losing a lot more than $15 million, all so the state can save $15 million.”
Her comments refer to the state’s efforts to close a budget gap of nearly $500 million. She later added
“This also doesn’t account for how many local companies do business with Wheeling Island, or for what will happen to the greyhounds if racing goes away.”
Erected in 1866, the Wheeling Island rose to a position of prominence as one of the top five greyhound racing venues of the more than 40 operating in the United States by mid-1970. With over 100 years of operation in the state, Wheeling is more than just a racing venue, it’s an institution with a reach that extends far beyond the boundaries of the track. Currently, the business generates $17.9 million in annual revenue, with $4.6 million generated every year in employee compensation. The county in which Wheeling Island operates received $213,000 in tax revenue every year, as well.
Today, dog racing is illegal in 40 states and only a handful of states still maintain operational tracks, including Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, West Virginia, Florida, and Texas.
Other legislators to come to the defense of the industry include West Virginian Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns and State Delegate Shawn Fluharty. The officials are speaking out in attempt to educate the public and other legislators on their misconceptions of where the money that funds racing activities is coming from. Many believe the state is subsidizing the industry to keep it afloat. However, breeders and those officials speaking out against the proposed cuts contest the notion.
Storch spoke directly to the newspaper in an attempt to allay the concerns of state-sponsored racing, saying,
“It is a total misnomer that it is a subsidy. If you don’t go to the casino and don’t gamble, none of your money is ever going to go to the greyhounds.”
Fluharty offered further explanations, stating
“All of this money is raised at the track. This is not a situation where taxpayers are funding this through income taxes or any other taxes applied to the general public.”
Storch was less than optimistic, alluding to the fact that there was an additional disciplinary aspect to the decision rather than just a pragmatic one. She admits many of her party’s members would be happy to see the practice abolished in the state due to conflicts of interest that had arisen in the past. She points namely to the fact that former democratic Governor Earl Ray Tomblin’s family profited directly from the industry. Tomblin’s mother is a greyhound breeder. Her involvement had been an issue among officials and voters during the former Governor’s election campaign.
When reached for comment, President and general manager of the racetrack Kim Florence remained optimistic about the process, admitting, ”the state is facing serious budget challenges.” while reassuring the parties involved that,
“We are focused on working with our legislators in finding a solution that supports jobs and revenue growth in our Wheeling community and the state.”
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