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State agencies getting handle on video lottery betting bars

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

CLARKSBURG -- Last summer, betting bars were new to the North Central region and to the two agencies that regulate alcohol and the video lottery machines that have been legal for nearly a year.

With bars that focus on gambling machines no longer as fresh or few in number, regulatory officials say they are now better able to cooperatively oversee them. Part of this new working partnership was forged by a local pioneer whose minimalist betting bar sparked a dual investigation.

"Like with any legislation, there's a learning curve," said Greg Skinner, deputy commissioner for the state Alcohol Beverage Control Administration. "That incident (Monti Casino investigations) was one that everyone learned something from."

Monti Casino opened late in the summer in what used to be an aisle of the North Pole Ice & Storage Co. convenience store in Clarksburg. Initially, the betting bar contained only the five machines allowed by the state.

Because legislators had taken great pains to exclude convenience stores from having machines, Lottery Commission officials particularly took a close look at the new operation.

A number of violations were discovered, and Monti Casino's video lottery permit was still suspended as of late last week. But lottery attorney John Melton said the business' basic legality and its owners' efforts to return to gambling operations have been enlightening.

Monti Casino owners Bill and Bob Viglianco have, for example, met a key requirement by installing a separate entrance into the betting bar, which is licensed as a Class A beer tavern. Now, a door from the bar to the store is only for emergency use, such as that related to a fire, Melton said.

The owners are also now aware they cannot mix cash register receipts from the two businesses or serve beer from the store in the betting bar, which is required to purchase its alcohol from a licensed distributor.

Also, the business has added a second room, which Skinner said is related to both ABCA and lottery regulations. ABCA inspectors must be able to see inside beer taverns from outdoors, while the lottery requires gambling machines be in a room that is not visible to the public.

Melton said the commission has agreed to consider restoring Monti Casino's license as soon as all problems are corrected and an appeal is filed. He agreed with Skinner that working through compliance issues with that business and others has improved regulatory efforts.

"We've established a closer relationship with ABCA," Melton said. "We're meeting more regularly and we're talking about licenses. This has helped out the whole process."

A quick check of what appears to be growing competition for Monti Casino indicates the agencies may be talking more and more. Since that betting bar and Blazzin 7's Lounge opened in Harrison County in August, their number appears to have quadrupled.

"Appears" is the operative word because Skinner said it is hard to pin down which businesses that have recently acquired both Class A liquor licenses and lottery retailer permits are betting bars and which are more traditional establishments. The ABCA started noting a trend toward the former this summer, when about 20 new bars statewide registered names that included such words as "Vegas" or "high rollers" or references to specific video lottery games.

In addition to the region's two original betting bars, there are six newer businesses with such names. Among them is a second Blazzin 7's, which owner Danny Thomas opened in Nutter Fort. The original business, which is licensed as a Class A private club, is in Rosebud Plaza near Clarksburg.

Looking down the list of names, Skinner said the trend is clearly continuing.

"I'd say it is a relatively small number in comparison to what we'd regularly see (in overall applications), but there's no question that some of the establishments are operating primarily for video poker," Skinner said.

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com.

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