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Slots go silent in Fort Erie; Employees, patrons mark the end of machines at racetrack, though efforts continue to change OLG's mind on removal

The lyrics from Rod Stewart's powerful 1991 ballad, "Rhythm of My Heart," pumped through the Fort Erie Race Track slots, providing an eerie backdrop as the final moments slipped away to 6 p.m. Monday and the machines went dark "permanently."

Oh, I've got lightning in my veins/Shifting like the handle/Of a slot machine/Love may still exist/In another place/I'm just yanking back the handle/No expression on my face.

Employees and patrons of the slots, who had grown to know each other during the facility's 13-year history, wiped away tears, embraced and collectively made their way toward the exit.

"It's like a family here," said Fort Erie Mayor Doug Martin. "It's very small and intimate. The people come here because they like it here."

Alex Hopkins and Ron Bathurst, of Stevensville, played a few last games and lingered with friends in the slots' last hour.

"A lot of older people come here. It's their entertainment," said Bathurst, a twice-a-week visitor to the slots, who lives in a local retirement community. "I don't go to bars. I don't drink. People here were all friends. It's like that here. You got to know everybody.

"All of the sudden, it's gone -- it's a shock."

Added Georgia Gull, of Fort Erie: "This was a place to socialize. I'm really going to miss this place."

So will Fort Erie.

Fort Erie Race Track and Slots was the town's largest employer. Nearly 200 employees are looking for work today.

One of them -- Edward Zagol, a 58-year-old native of Poland who has served as the sous chef in the slots' restaurant for the last four years -- said he's more concerned about his colleagues who have had trouble getting new work since last month's announcement the slots would close.

"I'm always finding something," said Zagol, who said he got work at a local golf course and is planning to open a restaurant in Hamilton or Toronto with another chef from the slots.

The 115-year-old racetrack itself will open next week, but it may also be on borrowed time -- some say less than a year -- with the loss of the revenue from the slots. That could mean even more job losses.

After losing industry, its hospital and now the slots, Fort Erie residents say their town's very identity is at stake.

That's why a couple hundred turned out in a thunderstorm outside of the building, holding up sparklers during a vigil in the hope that Martin, town and regional elected officials and area labor leaders can broker an agreement with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp.

Local officials will press OLG leaders to allow the slots to be turned over to a nonprofit, community-based entity that would run them, keeping the jobs in Fort Erie. They promise OLG $1 million for the license to run the slots.

They hope to meet with the gambling corporation's leadership today.

"We're going to go back to them and say, 'Give us a chance to help us help ourselves,' " Martin said. "These slots are too important to Fort Erie. We're not going to give up without a fight."

Fort Erie Council Member Steven Passero said there wasn't a business in Fort Erie "that will not feel the effects of this closure at 6:01 p.m."

Ted Mansell, executive vice president of Local 2, Service Employees International Union, remained hopeful about today's meeting.

"How ironic the heavens are crying at the jobs that are lost but we've all heard that 'April showers bring May flowers,' " he said.

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com