Casino general manager fights smoking ban on gambling floor

Monday, February 11, 2013 | 6:49 p.m. CST

ST. JOSEPH — Critics of a proposed smoking ban in St. Joseph are questioning why the gambling floor at St. Jo Frontier Casino would be exempt while bars and restaurants would be forced to go smoke-free.

The casino's general manager counters that revenues would drop 25 percent to 30 percent if a ban were enforced on the gambling hall, which could cost the community jobs and some of the money the facility is paying to the city.

"It's a business model that doesn't work," general manager Craig Travers told the St. Joseph News-Press. "Most of the time, a person goes to a casino to gamble, smoke and drink, and if they can't do all three of them at the same time, they go somewhere else where they can."

Travers said the revenue drop from a smoking ban at the casino could force it to lay off workers and would likely keep it from moving downtown. The facility made just over $45 million in fiscal year 2012 and annually provides $1 million to $1.5 million to the city's gaming initiatives fund which is used for miscellaneous expenses.

"Out of $130 million, $1 million is very small in the large scheme of things," said Carolyn Harrison, director of administrative services for the city. "It's not huge for us in terms of operating expenses, but it could have a fairly large impact on those organizations and the things we spend it on. Some of those entities really couldn't deal without our portion of the costs."

The City Council is conducting a series of hearings on the ordinance, including one scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday. Three others are scheduled through the end of February, and the council will discuss how it wants to handle the measure afterward.

City health department director Debra Bradley said the ordinance was drafted to exclude the casino so it can stay competitive. Language in the city's clean-air ordinance is similar to those in other communities, including Kansas City, she said.

"We had to find the middle-of-the-road and where to make exceptions," she said. "Across the state, bars and casinos and hotel rooms were the most common exceptions."

Travers said his estimate of revenue loss is based on a study conducted in Illinois after it enacted a statewide smoking ban in 2008 that included all 10 of its casinos.

St. Joseph's proposed ordinance includes a clause that would ban smoking at the St. Jo Frontier Casino if all casinos in Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., also go smoke-free.

While Travers said he is comfortable with that clause, he still would be concerned about losing customers to Indian-owned casinos in Kansas.

"Anytime there's casinos that have smoking near smoke-free casinos, they're going to have the upper hand in the market," he said.

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