NEW CUMBERLAND — The Hancock County health board is being asked to amend its Clean Air Regulation so that video lottery businesses can once again entertain smoking customers.
The smoking ban might be cleaning the air, but it’s also contributing to a poor business atmosphere in Hancock County, said consultant Ted Arneault, former CEO of MTR Gaming Group.
“I recognize the great intention that the health board had, and I’m very much aware of the need for clean air,” Arneault told the board on Tuesday. “But looking at the economic hardship that’s occurred in Hancock County in the last year, at least a portion of it can be attributed to the clean air act.”
Arneault said a stale business climate is the unintended consequence of the Clean Air Regulation, which banned smoking in public places. The health board passed the regulation in 2014 and made it effective on July 1, 2015.
In the intervening year, Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort and the county’s video lottery cafes have suffered a decline in customer traffic, revenue and jobs, Arneault said.
Mountaineer’s operating earnings for the second quarter of this year declined by 45 percent, compared to last year’s figures, he said. It has lost close to 300 jobs since last summer, he said.
The decline in revenue has led to a decline in video lottery profit sharing for Hancock County government and local municipalities, Arneault said.
Last year was the first year the county’s 2 percent take of racetrack video lottery proceeds dipped below $2.8 million.
For fiscal year 2017, which started on 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.
What’s more, the decline in traffic on state Route 2 has hurt the county’s economic development efforts, especially the marketing of 1,500 surplus acres that Mountaineer released for development last year, Arneault said.
Arneault has been promoting the sale of the commercial and residential real estate to prospects in the energy and automotive industries. “There are times when we can’t get into the courthouse for them to look at documents because of the economic stress that the county is under,” he said.
Arneault said there are ways to achieve the board’s public health goals while still allowing smoking in some establishments.
“I’m here to open a dialogue,” he said. “The easiest way to do a change would be to exempt those businesses that are licensed as video lottery licensees. That would put them back, moving in the right direction so that they can compete with some of the other similar businesses around here.”
An amendment of the Clean Air Regulation 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.
Board members said they would need time to review Arneault’s proposal, but Rick Smith sounded a note of skepticism, wondering whether a business could permit smoking and still fall under the board’s clean air standards.
“The poisonous gases cannot be physically removed,” he said.
“They can be moved outside on a constant-flow basis,” Arneault said.
(Huba can be contacted at [email protected])