By CASEY JUNKINS
The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register
WHEELING, W.Va. — Rehabilitation of the Capitol Theatre, construction of the Lowe’s store in Center Wheeling and the clearing of dilapidated structures to make way for The Health Plan’s new headquarters are some of the projects for which city leaders have relied on tax increment financing related to Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack in recent years.
West Virginia Sens. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall and Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, fear the city will lose the ability to take on such projects if the state eliminates the Greyhound Breeding Development Fund, which pays out millions of dollars to dog breeders each year. This is why they joined Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, in opposition to the legislation designed to cut off the funding, which ultimately passed Monday after rigorous debate.
Steve Sarras, president of the West Virginia Kennel Owners Association, has said there is no way his industry can survive if the state eliminates the payments to breeders because he said each greyhound requires about 2.5 pounds of beef per day, in addition to vitamins, training, grooming, housing and other expenses.
“It is a death blow,” he added.
If the measure to cut off dog funding becomes law — and if this results in the end of greyhound racing, as Sarras predicts — Northern Panhandle legislators fear the negative impact for Wheeling and Ohio County will far outweigh the benefit of saving the state $15 million per year.
In speaking on the Senate floor Monday, Maroney and Weld explained that much of Wheeling’s riverfront area is part of the tax increment financing district.
This is a tool that allows governments to borrow money for projects within a defined district on the promise they will repay the debt with revenue from property tax gains within that district.
“I’ve made more enemies than friends down here. I can’t wait for April 9,”Maroney said as he spoke at length on the senate floor in opposition to the legislation, while referring to the day after the Legislature’s session ends.
Maroney also said he is fearful of the legislation’s “decoupling” mechanism, which would remove the requirement that a West Virginia casino offer some type of racing in order to operate slot machines and table games.
“If there is a decoupling, half of that complex is shut down and devalued, immediately,” he said.
Weld also expressed concern for the city’s efforts in “revitalizing its downtown.”
Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, citing his Wheeling roots, also opposed the bill.
“This is going to have a tremendous negative impact on my district. It’s an easy decision for me to oppose this legislation.”
In the House, Delegate Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, who also serves as president of the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce, also fears losing dog racing would reduce the value of the property there, which makes up a sizable portion of the property value within the TIF district.
Now money is needed to replace storm and sewer drains in the city, she said.
“We need it if we’re going to have 450 new employees with The Health Plan coming to Wheeling,” Storch said.
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