County prepares for impact of smoking ban

One of the slick tourist brochures produced by Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort declares on its cover, “You Can Do It All!”

To that message will have to be added the footnote, “Except smoke”-a footnote that, depending on who’s talking, signals either hard times or good things to come for 2015.

Fallout from the Hancock County health board’s passage of a countywide smoking ban on Tuesday continues to echo patterns established during months of contentious debate prior to the vote.

Representatives of the county’s gaming industry and veterans’ organizations are painting a bleak economic picture, while public health officials are trying to shift the focus to implementation and compliance.

Among the volumes of commentary from Mountaineer since Tuesday’s vote was the admission by MTR Gaming Group President Joseph L. Billhimer Jr. on a radio talk show that Mountaineer had been approached by other West Virginia counties about moving its operations away from Hancock County.

“I can tell you that our preference would be to continue to grow and invest in Hancock County,” Billhimer told MetroNews Talkline host Hoppy Kercheval, “although, as a result of this action and past actions, we’ve had a few inquiries from other communities in West Virginia that we would consider.”

Billhimer said Mountaineer would be willing to entertain such offers. “We’ve had various discussions at a preliminary level,” he said, declining to elaborate.

Both Billhimer and Mountaineer General Manager Chris Kern subjected the health board to withering criticism in the hours and days after the smoking ban vote.

On Thursday, Kern told Hancock County commissioners, “We feel very strongly that the board and staff have acted in an unreasonable manner based on biased and inaccurate information and with prejudice to an outcome they determined months ago. … The (board) has shown a complete disregard for the documentation provided by Mountaineer, as if a predisposed decision had already been made.”

Kern also said that, as a result of the smoking ban, Mountaineer “anticipates a considerable negative effect on its business, which will force us to consider unfortunate alternatives.”

Mountaineer officials have said that a smoking ban would reduce business at the casino by 20 percent, potentially resulting in layoffs and a decline in tax revenue for Hancock County. Mountaineer employs 1,276 people and contributes about $3.2 million in taxes to the county annually.

Billhimer described the potential impact of the smoking ban as a “double whammy” because Mountaineer already is facing intense competition from new casinos in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and because many gamblers come to Mountaineer primarily so they can smoke.

“You have to take into account the fact that customers who smoke are going around casinos where they can’t smoke to visit our facility,” he said.

An estimated 2 million visitors come to Mountaineer annually, about 70 percent from Ohio-a state whose comprehensive indoor smoking ban was passed by voters in 2006.

Veterans’ organization leaders also are sounding a cautionary note about the impending smoking ban, which takes effect on July 1, 2015. Because American Legions and VFWs in Hancock County rely heavily on the revenue generated by their video lottery parlors, they worry that the loss of smoking patrons, especially those from out of state, will hurt their bottom line.

Just the threat of a smoking ban caused Chester VFW Post 6450 to put a temporary moratorium on all its charitable giving in May. That moratorium remains in effect, Commander David Ash said, putting in jeopardy hundreds of thousands of dollars given annually to local schools, clubs, organizations and sports leagues.

Ash said the post’s leadership plans to discuss the matter further at a meeting scheduled for Sept. 15. “The status quo is going to continue until we find out the overall effects of this,” he said. “There may be a few donations between now and July (2015), but in general, we’re going to start holding back.”

John Hissam, commander of Chester American Legion Post 121, said the post is “putting some things on hold until we see how badly it affects us.” Among those things is a planned remodeling project for the American Legion building, he said.

Hissam said he anticipates a dropoff in patronage as a result of the smoking ban. “We’ve talked to our customers about it. The ones from Ohio and Pennsylvania say it definitely will affect them. … They’re not driving down here to see my smiling face. They’re driving down here to gamble and smoke,” he said.

Following Tuesday’s vote, health board President Rick Smith, acknowledging the “emotional nature” of the issue, said he hoped the community would move on in a positive manner and “make the best of these changes.”

Smith commended his fellow board members for considering “every aspect” of the policy before making a difficult decision. “We researched and studied this issue in a comprehensive manner over the last few years, taking much into account and benchmarking other communities throughout West Virginia and neighboring states,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Hancock County Health Department has posted on its website a notice encouraging business owners not to wait until the effective date but to implement the policy as soon as possible. The department said it will be distributing information and offering training in the months to come.

A handout recently given to Mountaineer officials, titled “Implementing a Smoke-Free Regulation: A Guide for Hospitality Venues,” gives some insight into how the health department hopes to proceed. The document was adapted from material from Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, a nonprofit lobbying organization, and modified to reflect the situation in West Virginia.

In the section titled “Time to Move On,” businesses and managers are encouraged to not fight the policy-through lawsuits or voter referenda-but to work towards implementation.

“Rebelling against the new regulation only makes the transition more stressful, drawn out and costly,” the documents says. “Those establishments that pursue a path of opposition not only typically fail to overturn the new regulations, but, due to their rebellion, end up finding it more difficult to implement the regulations themselves.”

Making the transition to a smoke-free workplace, the document says, does not have to be difficult. “After a short transition, everything typically returns to normal-and in most cases, even better,” the document says.

“Since communities always have a much higher percentage of non-smokers, the potential for new customers will dramatically increase, and former customers who were avoiding secondhand smoke exposure may return,” the documents states. “Some customers who smoke may say they’re never coming back, yet they almost always do.”