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Hancock County to weigh smoking ban impact

NEW CUMBERLAND, W.Va. — Responding to concerns about the economy, Hancock County commissioners are asking the county health board to revisit the 2015 Clean Air Regulation that banned smoking in public places.

Commissioners on Thursday forwarded a letter to the health board from former MTR Gaming Group CEO Ted Arneault, who said Hancock County is living with the unintended, but predicted, consequences of the smoking ban.

“It appears that many businesses were negatively affected, primarily video lottery licensees,” Arneault said. “While hindsight is 20/20, there has now been enough time to be able to analyze the economic effect on those businesses.”

Chief among those businesses is Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort, which, at the time the smoking ban was passed in August 2014, predicted that it would suffer a 17 percent decline in revenue as a result. The casino opened a $2 million smoking pavilion on July 1, 2015, the same day the ban went into effect, in the hopes of retaining at least some smoking patrons.

But Arneault, working as a consultant for Mountaineer parent company Eldorado Resorts Inc., said Mountaineer’s quarterly financial reports show a steady decline in gross revenue and operating profits that is at least partly attributable to the smoking regulation.

Arneault said that decline has translated into the loss of 200 to 250 jobs at Mountaineer, including some from layoffs, and the loss of 100 to 250 jobs at smaller video lottery licensees.

“The unanticipated consequences of the new regulations were not expected nor approved by the voters of Hancock County,” he said.

What’s more, the decline in revenue is hurting the budgets of Hancock County and the municipalities of Chester, New Cumberland and Weirton, he said.

Last year was the first year that the county’s 2 percent take of racetrack video lottery proceeds dipped below $2.8 million. Insofar as Mountaineer is the county’s largest employer and largest taxpayer, the county’s fiscal health is tied up with the casino’s success.

For fiscal year 2017, which starts July 1, the county is projecting its 2 percent share to be $1.8 million, which means the municipalities should expect no profit sharing from racetrack video lottery. That’s money the cities have used for donations to private organizations and special projects, among other things.

Arneault said his concerns about the smoking ban have grown since he began marketing Mountaineer-owned land for economic development purposes. The casino decided in December 2015 to release approximately 1,500 acres of surplus property and make it available for sale or lease.

While commending the health board for acting in the “best interest” of the county, Arneault said the smoking regulation was an all-or-nothing measure that didn’t take economic factors into account.

“They went from smoking to no smoking, instead of looking at something in between,” he said.

Arneault thinks there is a way to achieve the board’s public health goals while still allowing smoking in some establishments. “The goals of the board and the video lottery businesses are not mutually exclusive,” he said.

“Discussions that I have had with architects and engineers familiar with the design of video lottery establishments indicate that there are engineering and design solutions that can provide a clean air environment for gaming facilities,” he said. “If the current regulations would be amended so that smoke is permitted, it could be addressed in a manner that would essentially eliminate smoking contaminants from the indoor environments.”

Arneault said such an amendment could:

Allow video lottery establishments to present air exchange and ventilation systems for consideration by the health board.

Include predetermined air quality standards set by the health board.

Create a review standard for the ongoing maintenance of such systems.

It is unclear whether the five-member health board would be willing to amend its Clean Air Regulation. Commissioners Jeff Davis, Joe Barnabei and Mike Swartzmiller voted Thursday to forward Arneault’s letter to the board for its review. Hancock County Health Department Administrator Jackie Huff could not be reached for comment.

Arneault said cooperation between the health board and the video lottery industry would “send a strong signal” that Hancock County has a “strong and stable” business environment.

Before video lottery and table gaming, Hancock County relied on the fortunes of Weirton Steel to fill its coffers. With the decline in both industries – steel and gaming – the county must look elsewhere. That elsewhere may be the oil and gas industry, Arneault said.

“I think this whole area is poised for an economic boost. I would like to see Hancock County in a position where they take a pro-business stance,” he said.

Also Thursday, commissioners:

Agreed to readvertise on the county website an open seat on the Hancock County Parks & Recreation Board.

Reappointed Kathy White, James Whitecotten and Caroll Rosenlieb to the Northern Panhandle HOME Consortium.

Appointed Nick Frankovitch to a vacancy on the Oakland Public Service District.

Reappointed Mark Vignovic to the Hancock County Solid Waste Authority.

Learned that voter turnout for the May 10 primary election was 33.10 percent and that the number of early voters (798) had doubled from 2014. The number of Hancock County residents who cast ballots was 8,083.

(Huba can be contacted at [email protected])

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