Mountaineer Holds Breath Over Smoke-Ban Plan
Photo: Coady Photography

Officials at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort are in a battle with the Hancock County Board of Health over plans for an ordinance that would ban smoking in all public places, including outdoor areas.

The topic has generated much discussion as the track prepares to host its biggest day of racing featuring the West Virginia Derby (gr. II) Aug. 2. The board of health is scheduled to vote on the ordinance Aug. 26.

Mountaineer is the largest employer in the county, located at the top of West Virginia's Northern Panhandle region. The potential impact of the ban was the focal point of a recent hearing in Hancock County.

"The issue of a smoking ban in Hancock County is a very serious issue," Mountaineer lobbyist Nelson Robinson told the West Virginia Racing Commission Aug. 1. "For some reason the Hancock County Board of Health does not believe an economic impact will take place."

Mountaineer officials said such a ban could damage business at the casino by 20%. Robinson said the company already is preparing for a business hit when Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley Race Course opens this fall near Youngstown, Ohio, which is Mountaineer's largest market. Indoor smoking is banned at Ohio businesses.

"This is a serious situation not only for revenue at this facility but for every person sitting here," Robinson said in reference to the horsemen that attended the WVRC meeting. "You would see a further reduction in purses and the breed development fund."

The proposed ban is rather extensive. For instance customers couldn't even go outside the casino to smoke or smoke on the racetrack apron. Mountaineer director of racing Rose Mary Williams said management offered to greatly limit smoking in hotel rooms, on the gaming floor, in restaurants and bars, and agreed to alter schedules if employees want to work in smoke-free areas.

As it stands now, it's a total property ban, said Williams, who noted it goes so far as to require patrons to get in their vehicles to smoke.

"This is going to be devastating for Hancock County," Robinson said. "And it doesn't look good at this point."

Horsemen's representatives noted board of health members are appointed by the elected Hancock County Board of Commissioners. Under West Virginia law, the non-elected body has the power to authorize and enforce a smoking ban.

In Ohio County, located about 45 minutes south of Mountaineer, a smoking ban was enacted but Wheeling Island Hotel Casino & Racetrack was permitted to offer limited indoor smoking.

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