Video gaming a jackpot for bars, truck stops and other businesses
by ART GOLAB AND TINA SFONDELES Staff Reporters August 10, 2013 9:22AM
George Lawrence, 75, watches some of his regulars gamble at Bertrand Lanes in Waukegan. | Tina Sfondeles~Sun-Times
Updated: September 12, 2013 6:27AM
In just the month of June, the regulars at Jesters in Waukegan lost more than $70,000 playing video poker and slot machines.
The bulk of that — about $50,000 — will be split between the bar and machine operator.
The state rakes in $18,000 of the take.
And the city of Waukegan gets $3,500.
With that kind of money laying on the table, hundreds of bars, truck stops, veterans groups and fraternal organizations are rushing to get a piece of the action since legal video gambling went live last year.
In just the first six months of this year, the amount of money taken in and the number of establishments offering video gaming have more than doubled.
And it will likely double again.
As of June, there were 1,863 licensed video game establishments, but there are also at least 2,000 more applicants waiting in line.
And through the first six months of the year, the people playing the video machines across the state lost $106 million, according to Illinois Gaming Board data.
The latest list of businesses looking to get dealt in fills 170 pages on the Illinois Gaming Board’s web site.
That list of license hopefuls will surely grow if Gov. Pat Quinn allows a recently passed bill to become law. The bill adds social clubs to the list of those eligible for licenses.
But not every area is participating in the bonanza. Under state law, local governments can ban video gaming. Chicago has done so, and Cook, DuPage and Lake Counties have banned video gaming in unincorporated areas.
But some in those areas looking to get in the game.
As money started to flow to businesses in neighboring towns, establishments where video gaming remains illegal have turned up the pressure on local governments.
Sugar Grove in Kane County reversed its ban in January at the request of the American Legion and others.
“You can’t throw a protective bubble over Sugar Grove and pretend our residents won’t gamble — they just won’t gamble here,” Cliff Barker, chaplain for the Sugar Grove American Legion said at the time.
In April, McHenry County reversed its ban for unincorporated areas, and Lake County is considering doing the same.
For now, the highest concentration of video gambling in the Chicago area is in the west, southwest and south inner-ring suburbs of Chicago in Cook County.
Many of these towns are in mostly white, blue collar, industrial areas.
Some of the establishments are literally across the street from Chicago, where video gaming is illegal.
Other video gambling strongholds are in Joliet, Rockford and Waukegan.
Ed Paesel, executive director of the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association, said towns in his area that have opted into video gaming “are in some cases desperate for money.”
Also, in many towns video gambling is not new. It’s just legal now.
“I don’t think there was the same stigma here as in communities that have that never experienced that,” Paesel said.
Many area residents also travel to casinos in nearby Indiana or Joliet.
“I think the communities made a judgment that the folks using these machines are going to spend the money anyway,” Paesel said. “Why not bolster the local establishments and the municipalities?”
Meanwhile, revenue from the games allows bars and restaurants that might otherwise close to remain open, the businesses say.
“It had to happen or we weren’t going to exist,” said George Lawrence, who has run Bertrand’s Lounge, which is also a bowling alley, in north suburban Waukegan for 49 years.
“The young people just don’t participate. They don’t join anything, bowling leagues or civic groups.”
But video gaming has given Bertrand’s a new lease on life. In June, Bertrand’s kept nearly $20,000 of the money customers put into the machines.
The machines — which feature dozens of games each with a penny, nickel or quarter bet option — are tucked away in a separate dimly lit gaming area, a room away from the bowling alley full of seniors in a midday league.
Lawrence has his regulars: “It’s a social experience. There’s the afternoon crowd. Then there’s the evening crowd that just got off work, and the late crowd.”
One woman gambling on Wednesday afternoon, who did not want to be named, said she felt the bowling alley was a safe place to play: “There’s no pressure to drink, no men. I feel safe here.”
For Don Volpe, owner of The Cordial Inn in west suburban Brookfield, the money that comes in from five machines has helped him fix up the bar he’s owned for 30 years.
“I’ve been able to do things I would never have been done,” Volpe, 63, said. “It’s just given me so much.”
With the proceeds, Volpe was able to hire out a bathroom cleaning crew, get three new flat screen TVs and redo the blacktop parking lot.
But the bar owner does see one drawback: “I don’t know how it’s going to help the economy for some people,” Volpe said. “I mean, there are going to be people spending money, and hopefully they can control that themselves. Yeah, I worry about that.”