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2 girls target poker bars

Children take on vice in a town overrun by gambling

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WEIRTON, W.Va. — It was bad enough when Bruster's ice cream shop became a gambling parlor. But when both Dairy Queens closed to make way for mini-casinos, two 11-year-old girls had to act.

Dazja Gianessi and Maya Carey crafted a petition, simply asking people to help bring ice cream back to this steel town sandwiched between Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Unexpectedly, their mission has begun to galvanize a quietly simmering anti-gambling sentiment, prompting one man to run for state office. So far, city officials have yet to respond.

Weirton, with a population of 20,000, has 81 licensed video poker bars. Only Wheeling and Parkersburg have more — 101 each — but they also have at least 10,000 more residents.

There weren't many clubs when Dazja and her family moved in three years ago. Now, they're everywhere.

"You can gamble, but you don't want it to go too far," she said. "Three or four would be enough."

Maya said grown-ups seem to have forgotten that children need places to hang out, too.

"I think they're just being selfish, worrying about themselves," she said. "They don't think children will do anything about it."

In two weeks, the girls have collected nearly 600 signatures, including that of Gov. Bob Wise (No. 241).

It was Wise, however, who pushed for the Limited Video Lottery Act of 2001, which allows 9,000 video poker machines in bars, private clubs and other adult settings. He wanted to eliminate similar machines that had operated for years without regulation or taxation.

Susan Gott initially thought any new business would be a good thing for a town that has lost thousands of jobs.

"But now it's all about gambling," she said. "There's nowhere to go anymore, no place to take your family. Anywhere that was anything is now a gambling joint — a house, a Dairy Queen, a doughnut shop, a bakery."

When a hair salon installed the machines, Gott and her husband started to boycott.

"I'm ashamed it's taken two kids to get me to voice my opinion," she said. "It's a little thing they're doing, but maybe a lot of little things will get noticed."

Roger Madden, whose opposition led him to launch a campaign for the House of Delegates, said club owners have taken advantage of bankruptcy and massive downsizing of Weirton Steel Corp. And the city gets only a fraction of a cent for every dollar gambled.

"It's a license to steal," Madden said.

Aside from the small stream of revenue, Mayor William Miller sees some other benefits: Once-shuttered businesses have reopened, and property values are rising. But even he thinks there are too many clubs.

State law requires video poker establishments to have a liquor license and be at least 150 feet apart. They also must be 300 feet from a church or school. Communities can pass more stringent zoning rules. Weirton's seven-member council has yet to muster the political will. So far, Miller said, only two or three members want to act.

While Maya and Dazja still think the petition drive is all about ice cream, others have come to realize it's a much larger issue.

But Sharron Gianessi is determined to make sure her daughter's goal isn't lost. She and some friends are trying to find backers for a new ice cream parlor.

She'll call it "Dazja Vu, Just for Kids."