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Mountaineer smoking pavilion gives gamblers a choice

| Sunday, Aug. 16, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

Signs of Mountaineer Casino's big change are all around.

Smokers perch on benches outside the main entrance, indulging their habit. A notice on the door declares the Chester, W.Va., casino a “smoke free facility.” Near the main floor, a sign reminds everyone it is a “smoke free area.” A few yards away, a placard points toward the new smoking pavilion.

Mountaineer, forced to ban smoking throughout the main floor July 1 when a tougher Hancock County clean-air ordinance took effect, now boasts that it has the “best of both worlds.” The main floor, with about 1,440 slot machines and 44 table games, is nonsmoking. The $2 million smoking pavilion, billed as the country's largest outdoor gambling facility of its kind, has 201 slots and six table games.

Several gamblers there on the 46th annual West Virginia Derby Day, which included a horse race with a $750,000 purse, applauded the change; some in the pavilion thought it stunk.

In the first month of the smoking ban, gaming revenue dropped by about 25 percent from the previous year. Slot and table-game revenue totaled $16.49 million in 2014 but fell to $12.39 million this year. The 2014 total includes an extra day of revenue.

Mountaineer is not alone in seeing lower revenue immediately after a smoking ban takes effect. Officials at Harrah's New Orleans blame a citywide smoking ban that took effect April 22 for a 16 percent drop in May and a 30 percent drop in June, according to media reports.

In opposing the smoking ban for Mountaineer, casino officials predicted it would reduce gambling revenues and the taxes paid to state and local governments.

Mountaineer General Manager Chris Kern says the smoking ban is only part of the reason for July's dropoff. Mahoning Valley racetrack in Youngstown, Ohio, added slot machines in September, and Mountaineer revenue had fallen since.

“Our initial impact was much less than other jurisdictions have experienced when they went nonsmoking,” Kern says. Smokers appreciate that Mountaineer opened a large pavilion with a variety of options in slot denominations and machine types, he adds.

The pavilion, designed to meet the Health Board definition for an outdoor area, features a permanent roof with several heaters as well as large fans to keep the air moving in summer.

“Players thoroughly enjoy it out there,” he says. “It's almost like a different casino. It's a different feel, a different vibe from the rest of the building.”

Gary Booth of New Waterford, Ohio, whose wife and daughter smoke but not in the house or his car, endorsed the ban. He notes that the main floor was crowded on Derby Day and the smoking pavilion was jammed, as well. He thinks more nonsmokers will visit Mountaineer as word spreads.

John and Margaret Fites of Suffield, Ohio, didn't know about the smoking ban when they drove about an hour to Mountaineer.

“I'm used to it,” Margaret said as she and John demurely smoked on a bench outside the casino. “It doesn't bother me.” They hadn't been to Mountaineer in about 20 years and decided to drive down on Derby Day. Ohio casinos are nonsmoking.

Cindi Drabik of Brunswick, Ohio, playing a Red Empress penny slot in the smoking pavilion with husband George, gave a terse review of the no-smoking policy: “It sucks.”

They drive about 90 minutes to reach Mountaineer. Her favorite machines aren't in the pavilion, and the smoking area is packed, she says.

“I'd just have more fun if I was out there” on the main floor, she adds. Kern says the machine lineup in the pavilion will be tweaked based on customer demand.

The ban allows Tom Clemens of Steubenville, Ohio, to play blackjack more often and on any day he wants.

“Going nonsmoking did a lot of good for everyone,” says Clemens, who uses an oxygen tank to breathe because of damaged bronchial tubes. “People are starting to come back.”

Before the ban, he would limit his Mountaineer trips to midweek, when traffic was slow. If a rude smoker wouldn't stop blowing smoke his way, he'd half-jokingly threaten to smack him with his oxygen tank.

“Now I can go on Friday and Saturday,” Clemens says.

Mark Gruetze is administrative editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7838 or players@tribweb.com.

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