NEW CUMBERLAND, W.Va. — Hoping to mitigate the impact of a countywide smoking ban, Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort plans to build an elaborate smoking patio that it says will “meet the intent” of the new regulation.
Joseph L. Billhimer, chief operating officer of Mountaineer parent company Eldorado Gaming Inc., unveiled the plans to the Hancock County health board on Tuesday and got a mostly positive reception.
Mountaineer asked the board for three waivers from the Hancock County Clean Air Regulation, including the requirement that outdoor smoking areas be at least 20 feet from an entrance, exit or ventilation unit.
Rather than strictly follow that setback rule, Mountaineer will keep smoke from entering the indoor gaming areas by using the “positive air pressure” of the existing HVAC system, Billhimer said.
Mountaineer also sought clarification of the definition of an “enclosed area” in the regulation. Board members agreed that the definition was vague and amended it to say that an enclosed area is one that is “bounded on at least three sides” by walls. It previously said two sides.
“We’re happy at least with this,” Billhimer said after the meeting, “and hopefully, we can move forward from here.”
The smoking regulation, adopted by the health board last summer over the objections of Mountaineer and veterans’ organizations, prohibits smoking in enclosed public places, including all places of employment, and certain outdoor public places.
At public hearings, Billhimer and other Mountaineer officials warned that the ban would drive smoking patrons away and reduce annual revenues by 17 percent. At the time, Mountaineer, Hancock County’s largest employer, permitted smoking on the casino floor, access ways, hotel lobby, trackside, some hotel rooms, the Mahogany Sports Bar and a limited area of the Gatsby Dining Room.
Now that the July 1 effective date is drawing near, Mountaineer and other businesses with a large smoking clientele have begun submitting plans for the construction of outdoor smoking areas. Plans submitted by Chester American Legion Post 121 were deemed to be in compliance with the regulation, said Hancock County Health Department Administrator Jackie Huff.
But Mountaineer’s plans were more extensive and, therefore, required further review, Huff said.
Mountaineer hired the Encompass Develop, Design & Construct firm, of LaGrange, Ky., to design the smoking patio. Firm President John Stewart said three of the seven casinos in Ohio have similar patios. Ohio voters passed a statewide smoking ban in 2006.
The Mountaineer patio will be built in a former gaming area facing state Route 2 that is currently unused, Stewart said. It will be converted into an outdoor area by removing two exterior walls, retaining the roof and installing a 12-feet-high perimeter fence, he said.
An estimated six gaming tables and 119 video lottery slot machines will be relocated to the smoking patio, Billhimer said.
“I don’t see a problem with what you all are doing,” board member Phil Rujak said.
Mountaineer also wanted the patio to have a bar, but Huff said beverage service would subject the area to health department regulation. As simply an outdoor space, it is not regulated, she said.
Hancock County Commissioner Jeff Davis, who advocated last summer for Mountaineer and other liquor license-holders to be exempt from the ban, said Tuesday that he thought the health board struck the right balance this time.
“I appreciate what you did. I think what you did was try to accommodate all people,” Davis said.
The regulation bans smoking in all restaurants, bars, gaming facilities, private clubs, hotels, motels, bingo operations, sports arenas and concert venues. It also bans smoking in public parks, including pavilions, playgrounds, fairs, festivals, outdoor service lines, outdoor serving areas of restaurants and other outdoor public places.
What’s more, the regulation gives the health department enforcement powers, including the authority to inspect for compliance, take complaints and file charges. Violation of the regulation is considered a misdemeanor punishable by a monetary fine.