Originally created 08/17/97

Video poker hasn't been chased away



AIKEN -- Opponents of video poker keep on trying to get rid of the electronic card games.

But so far they haven't zoned them out of existence and they haven't succeeded in legislating them away.

Poker operators who are flush with big profits from the gaming machines have matched them every step of the way with lawsuits.

Like Energizer bunnies, the machines keep on going. In some spots they operate 24 hours. Only Nevada and New Jersey have more video poker machines than South Carolina.

There are about 8,000 locations statewide with 25,000 machines. In 1990, there were about 18,000 machines, said Vicki Ringer, spokeswoman for the state Department of Revenue.

There's been a steady increase in machines each year despite the controversy and lawsuits.

As of June 30, 1996, South Carolina raked in about $58 million in revenues for the fiscal year 1997 from issuing video poker licenses.

"The $58 million tells you the machines are increasing in number," Ms. Ringer said. "It's been a fairly constant increase."

In June a group of about 52 video poker owners filed a lawsuit in Richland County seeking to void a bill Gov. David Beasley signed into law that would reinstate bans on payouts from the games in 12 counties, including Aiken. The law goes into effect Nov. 1, unless poker owners prevail in court.

A hearing seeking a temporary injunction could happen this week.

Meanwhile, North Augusta officials are watching to see what happens at the former site of two adult video and bookstores near the Fifth Street Bridge - Foxes and Video Showcase. Aiken County officials succeeded in shutting them down by enforcing zoning restrictions.

North Augusta is engaged in a legal dispute with the Columbia-based owners, H.B. Bently and Richard Brady. The men filed a lawsuit two weeks ago accusing city officials of illegally shutting off sewer services to the location.

City officials said Mr. Bently and Mr. Brady have told them they want to re-open the store and install poker machines. If so, they could lay claim to the first video poker mall on South Carolina territory, catching interstate traffic that flows across the Savannah River.

A phone message to Mr. Bently and Mr. Brady wasn't returned Friday.

The uncertainty of video poker in the state apparently isn't a deterrent.

Video poker is big money. Estimates are that players lay out about $1.4 billion in wagers and operators take in about $404 million in revenues annually. On average each machine turns a profit of about $19,000 after payouts.

North Augusta Administrator Charles Martin said, "If (poker operators) can hang on for six months, they could lose the lawsuit and still come out ahead."

County officials, who would have to issue permits at the Fifth Street Bridge site, say it's not certain video poker machines can be located there. County Administrator Bill Shepherd said the county would need proof that machines were in operation at the site prior to July 1, 1995, to meet requirements for being grandfathered in.

"Some businesses brought pictures in as proof or state tax information," Mr. Shepherd said.

To date no one is aware of any inquiries about permits for poker machines at the old Foxes bookstore, he said.

However, there's no lack of gaming machines elsewhere to keep fans of the gaming machines happy.

Aiken County Tax Collector Martin Posey said the county has about 450 machines licensed.

The city of Aiken has renewed 56 machines to date through June 30, said Al Cothran, the city's business license inspector. The machines are operated at about 10 locations within city limits, he said.

But at least one business on Richland Avenue has closed, Mr. Cothran said.

In North Augusta, Finance Director John Potter said the city has issued licenses for 20 businesses and 99 machines.

Under a consent order to settle a lawsuit filed by poker operators, North Augusta agreed to grandfather in several businesses for a two-year period.

Mr. Martin called the settlement a good deal for the city even though they temporarily accepted the video machines.

"After two years regardless of other laws, those machines will be gone," Mr. Martin said.