Unger: Tourism bill written by gaming lobbyist

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. — The so-called Hilltop House Bill that would establish Tourism Development Districts is facing criticism from one local senator, who says the bill was written by a lobbyist for the gaming industry.

“Senator Rucker introduced it, but actually the lobbyist wrote it,” Sen. John Unger (D-Berkeley, 16) said. “They admitted to me – I said, ‘Where did it come from? Did you bring in municipalities? Who all talked about it?’ I mean that’s how good policy is developed. And this lobbyist said, ‘No, I wrote it three weeks ago and gave it to Senator Rucker and she introduced it’.”

The bill would allow for five Tourism Development Districts in West Virginia, although only one has been specified so far – the long-discussed, $139 million Hill Top House hotel project in Harpers Ferry.

The act would enable the state Development Office to spearhead a project under certain conditions. The Department of Transportation would provide support, including acquiring and developing streets and roads.

Sen. John Unger (D-Berkeley)

Senator Unger said he supports Hilltop House being refurbished, but characterized the bill as a slippery slope that could in the future allow projects that are loosely classified as tourism projects to take properties through Eminent Domain. He said it chips away at local control.

“Say that someone buys up the Bavarian (Inn) from the Asam family, or the Clarion, and they decide that they want to expand, and say that’s 25-million dollars, and set up gaming of some sort. The local town would have no input. The local zoning ordinances, nothing would apply,” Unger said.

The bill as it is written would apply to Class IV municipalities of fewer than 2,000 residents. And it would apply to projects with investments of more than $25 million, in historic districts and qualifying for state tourism tax credits, which have their own requirements.

Story by Marsha Chwalik