NEWELL, W.Va. — With today’s opening of the Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley Race Course in Austintown, Ohio, Hancock County’s racetrack casino faces the latest in a series of internal and external challenges.
Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort General Manager Chris Kern said Mountaineer has been preparing for this day for three years.
“They’re opening in one of our primary markets … and that is a concern,” Kern said in an interview Tuesday.
An estimated 75 percent of Mountaineer’s business comes from northeast Ohio, Kern said. With Austintown only 45 miles away, Mountaineer recognizes that it will take more than flashy billboards along Ohio Route 11 to keep northeast Ohio customers coming back.
“Any time a new place opens, everybody’s going to check it out. That’s human nature. Everybody wants to go see what the shiny new penny looks like,” Kern said. “While we will see an impact, I think those customers will be back.”
Hollywood Gaming’s 850 slot machines open to the public today, and its thoroughbred racing, which will replace Beulah Park on the winter schedule, will begin Nov. 24. Racing will take place Monday through Wednesday and Saturday afternoon November through mid-April, meaning there will be some overlap with Mountaineer’s schedule, he said.
Kern said he’s confident that Mountaineer’s amenities, customer service and recently renovated gaming facilities will make the difference.
“When I got here, we had more competition coming on board in Pennsylvania and Ohio … so we knew we had to start making changes three years ago to be ready today,” Kern said.
Those changes, to the tune of $28 million, include:
Remodeling the majority of the casino floor;
Upgrading the casino and hotel restaurants;
Moving the poker room and non-smoking slots room to a more high-profile location;
Remodeling the original hotel (pending) and the clubhouse on the trackside;
Adding a VIP room to the casino floor for “high end” customers;
Making $1 million in improvements to the heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems;
Consolidating “cage” operations;
Installing new carpeting, dropped ceilings, bill validators and slot chairs; and
Renovating the restrooms.
“It’s quite a list,” Kern said. “We feel like, with all the physical changes and the (human resource) changes over the past three years, we’ve positioned ourselves about as well as we could be positioned to be ready to fight for our market share and for our customers.”
Kern said Mountaineer has an advantage over Austintown in that it also has hotels, a spa, a fitness center, a concert venue and a golf course.
Compared to Hollywood Gaming’s 850 slots, Mountaineer has 2,086 slot machines, 39 table games and 12 poker tables, he said. Slot machines were first installed in 1994, and table games were added in 2009.
But increasing competition from new and existing casinos in Ohio and Pennsylvania has taken its toll on Mountaineer. Net revenues have dropped by 50 percent since reaching a peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“When this property first opened, it was a monopoly. We could have done anything. It didn’t matter what we spent money on – we knew we were going to be busy,” Kern said. “Any time you go from a monopoly to any type of competition, you’re going to take a significant hit.”
Other challenges facing the casino are the indoor smoking ban recently adopted by the Hancock County health board, which goes into effect July 2015, and a 2012 lawsuit filed Hancock County commissioners over Mountaineer’s practice of not collecting the county’s 6 percent hotel occupancy tax on complimentary rooms.