City may now be poised to amend smoking ordinance; question still looms on if it’s too late

June 10, 2023 | 12:10 am

Updated June 12, 2023 | 6:55 pm

Graphic by Owensboro Times

Update — The Owensboro City Commission has removed consideration of an amended smoking ordinance from the agenda of their special called meeting set for Tuesday afternoon. It was removed Monday following the announcement from Churchill Downs Incorporated (CDI) that the company had secured a site to build an Ellis Park extension facility in eastern Daviess County, outside of city limits. CDI said they nixed plans to use Towne Square Mall after the City Commission “rejected” the company’s proposal and “were not willing to reconsider at that time.” The City announced Friday they were holding the special called meeting, with the main agenda item being about reconsidering the ordinance.

Original story — Based on comments from commissioners Friday evening, the City of Owensboro now appears to be in position to potentially approve an amendment to the smoking ordinance that’s been in place since 2014. The looming question is whether or not it’s to late after Churchill Downs Incorporated (CDI) officials said they no longer planned to use Towne Square Mall for the Ellis Park extension facility.

Owensboro Times was the first to report last week that CDI had nixed the plans to use Towne Square Mall and the company is now looking for other locations to build the entertainment venue.

A CDI spokesperson declined to answer specific questions from OT about why the company was no longer pursuing the expansion to the mall, but the decision came after the City of Owensboro in March declined to amend their smoking ban. (Daviess County’s smoking ordinance has been in place since 2005, but the City adopted their own ordinance in 2014 that even further restricts where smoking is allowed.)

In interviews on June 1, members of the City Commission said they were not surprised by CDI’s decision, saying they knew up front failure to amend the smoking policy could be a dealbreaker.

In March, the commission was split 3-2 with the majority wanting to make no changes to the policy. Knowing the amendment would fail if it went to a vote, the commission instead decided to postpone a vote.

Now, there could be a 3-2 majority in favor of adopting the amendment. That’s because the late Larry Maglinger was against the change, while interim Commissioner Sharon NeSmith is leaning toward approving the amendment.

However, even if the City approves the amendment, there’s no guarantee it will save the CDI project. CDI officials have not responded to any of the multiple attempts by OT to find out if the company will reconsider using the mall for the extension facility.

Regardless, the amendment is back on the table for consideration, as it’s on the agenda for a special called City Commission meeting at 5 p.m. Tuesday. No action can be taken Tuesday because it will only be the first reading of the amendment. It could have a second reading at the June 20 Commission meeting and could be voted on then.

The ordinance was originally read at the March 7 Regular Meeting. At the March 21 meeting, instead of voting, the Commission unanimously opted to postpone the vote indefinitely after hearing comments from public health officials.

The ordinance, which can be read in its entirety here, would permit smoking to occur in an enclosed public area, provided the designated smoking-permitted area is segregated from the non-smoking area.

Here’s what commissioners had to say Friday evening:

Mark Castlen

“I think it’s the final opportunity for this to be approved,” Castlen said.

Castlen said that ultimately the ordinance protects the non-smokers in the community. The way he understands it, CDI is looking to protect the non-smokers by including a separate room with separate ventilation — and he supports that effort.

While Castlen knows passing this ordinance does not guarantee CDI will still move into the mall, he thinks it’s important the City tries to make this deal with a potential community partner.

“We ought to extend this olive branch, so to speak, to let them know that we’re definitely interested in having them in our community,” Castlen said.

Castlen said non-smokers are not at risk of exposure to smoke due to the precautions CDI would take. He previously said the facility would have a double-door entry system and that no food or drink being brought in and out of the smoking area.

He said he wanted the ordinance to get put back on the agenda and is hopeful for its passage.

“I’ll put it this way, I feel mildly optimistic, but I’m one that knows anything crazy can happen,” Castlen said.

Pam Smith-Wright

“I have not changed my feelings. I am still a “no” vote. I think that Churchill — if they really wanted to consider Owensboro and if they were really honest about doing that — would do non-smoking, that’s just my personal opinion,” Smith-Wright said.

Smith-Wright said the smoking ordinance had been in place long before CDI decided they wanted to allow smoking at the facility.

“They knew we were non-smoking when they came to Owensboro. So if you know that when you come, why is it that you want to change us?” she questioned.

She also pointed to the fact the venue would only have 15% of its space dedicated to smoking. She said passing an amendment for that small of an area doesn’t make sense. She also said she was confused wh CDI previously claimed smoking is as integral to the facility when they have other locations that do not allow smoking on the premises.

Ultimately, it comes down to the patrons’ and the community’s health that keeps Smith-Wright from voting for the amendment.

“When they threaten us with saying ‘if you don’t do what we say, we’ll go somewhere else,’ somehow that tells me you don’t care about the health of our community and you really don’t care about the health of the patrons that are going to frequent your establishment, and that’s just my personal opinion,” Smith-Wright said.

Bob Glenn

“[If we pass this] what message do we send about how we view the public health of our citizens? Let’s take [Churchill Downs] out of the equation, what are we saying? We’re saying we are willing to endanger our citizens in the pursuit of the almighty dollar, that’s what we’re saying,” Glenn said.

Glenn noted that he was on the commission when the 2014 ordinance was passed, and he doesn’t want to go backward after nearly a decade.

To get the current ordinance passed, he said, there were already compromises that had to be established‚ such as allowing smoking in the VFWs and what he calls the “smoky bars” in town.

He said those businesses claimed that smoking was integral to their business, and many of them have closed their doors for good.

“The smoky bars up and down 9th Street told us it was essential to their business model that they be allowed to continue to allow their patrons to smoke, and the problem is that a lot of them went out of business anyway,” Glenn said.

While CDI promised to have a separated section for smokers, Glenn said there would still be overlap between smokers and nonsmokers. He said that by growing up in Las Vegas he learned there would be crossover, as several places have the same set up the CDI described.

According to Glenn, CDI saying they would not have employees go into the smoking area “defies logic.”

“Someone is going to have to clean that area. Someone is going to have to work on the machines when they break. They will be they need to be maintained. In lieu of having food and drink, they said they were going to put in a vending machine with drinks and food somebody’s got to go restock that. Somebody’s got to pay out the jackpots that are too large to handle from the machine itself. They’re gonna have to have some employees go into that area. They can’t treat it like a toxic zone,” Glenn said.

If they did opt not to tend that area, he said that then make their patrons like a “pariah of sorts.”

Sharon NeSmith

“Based on the information I’ve gained over the last couple days and the existing information, assuming Churchill Downs is coming, I am in favor of amending the smoking policy,” NeSmith said.

NeSmith was not privy to the early conversations with CDI, so to prepare for the upcoming meetings and potential vote she asked some close friends visit the company’s Louisville location. She asked that they pay attention to the smoking policies there and if they felt they were exposed to smoke in any way.

“They came back and said no. They described how it was and it’s kind of like the plan that Churchill is proposing for here,” NeSmith said.

CDI policy for the Louisville location reads: “Churchill Downs prohibits smoking and e-cigarettes in interior locations or in any location where food is being served, including outdoor balconies. Smoking is permitted in most outdoor areas not bound by two or more walls, provided the area meets local regulations.”

She also said she couldn’t help but consider the state of south Frederica Street, saying she would love to see some kind of development in that area to help the city grow.

In her eyes, both sides of the argument make sense and she can see cases for why it should and should not be amended.

“If you had asked me two days ago, I might’ve said no because the health is also a big deal. We do have to worry about adults only going in there, so adults should be able to make a decision on whether they should or not [go inside],” she said.

Mayor Tom Watson

Mayor Tom Watson could not be reached for comment Friday evening. However, he previously told OT he was in favor of the amendment.

Last week he said, “People think I can just make somebody vote some way because I’m the mayor. But my vote is just one vote, just like everybody else’s.”

He added that the Southtown area could “really use a boost,” but the project just didn’t have the votes at the time. 

“I told (Churchill) at the beginning you gotta get three votes, and I said we have a very tight smoking ban. I asked them then, ‘Are you coming if you can’t (allow smoking)?’ and I did not get an answer,” he said.

Watson said he doesn’t know if it’s too late to save the deal if the City were to amend the ordinance now.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” he said. “I know that they really liked that building. We’ve even looked at de-annexing that building itself, and there was not an appetite for that either. Churchill is a tremendous name, and they’re probably not accustomed to having a community saying ‘Thanks, but no, thanks.’ That’s pretty disappointing.”

June 10, 2023 | 12:10 am

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