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Thursday, April 3, 2014 12:01 am

A gambling mecca

Springfield tops state in video gambling

This Qik-N-EZ on Peoria Road isn’t near an interstate but is still deemed a truck stop by the Illinois Gaming Board, which has granted a license for round-the-clock gambling.
PHOTO BY BRUCE RUSHTON

 

Illinois has gone ga-ga over video gambling, with Springfield leading the state in numbers of machines and dollars wagered, according to the latest figures from the Illinois Gaming Board.

Springfield has, by far, the most video gambling machines outside casinos of any municipality or county in the state. The devices have proven so popular statewide that the number of video gambling machines in bars, restaurants, truck stops and other places last fall surpassed the number of machines and seats at table games in the state’s 10 casinos combined.

As of March 1, Springfield had 366 video gambling machines installed in 84 businesses. There were another 105 machines installed in 24 businesses in unincorporated Sangamon County, mostly in nooks close to the city – think bars and restaurants on Dirksen Parkway, near the state fairgrounds and just east of MacArthur Boulevard and north of Stanford Avenue. There are another 20 machines in so-called island municipalities such as Southern View, Jerome and Grandview. More could be on the way, with 30 pending applications from businesses within Springfield city limits, each of which could have as many as five machines.

Rockford, with 302 machines in operation as of March 1, has the second-highest number of devices in operation of any municipality in the state.

Springfield has collected more than $625,600 in taxes and nearly $240,000 in registration and licensing fees for machines and establishments since video gambling began in the city in late 2012.

“The (city) fees don’t appear to detract anyone from getting into the business,” says William McCarty, director of the city office of budget and management. “We have not reached a plateau yet, based on the evidence in front of us.”

Gaming board records show a Road Ranger truck stop on Camp Butler Road has routinely netted more than $90,000 a month since machines were installed in 2012, making the truck stop the state leader. The state takes 25 percent of that net in taxes and the city collects another 5 percent.

“What I’m surprised by is, our numbers are so strong and growing in light of all the other games out there,” says Daniel Arnold, owner of Road Ranger, who has 16 truck stops across the state benefiting from video gambling. “As you know, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a gaming operation. … I’m surprised by how many have been deployed and how many are successful.”

The gaming board has granted licenses for some unusual locations, particularly outside Springfield and Sangamon County. In Loves Park, a city of less than 25,000 people near Rockford, the gaming board last week granted a license to Rockford Pool and Spa, a company that can now offer a chance to gamble while shopping for chlorine, a hot tub or accoutrements for your backyard swimming pool. It is not an unprecedented move. Sonco Pools and Spa, another swimming pool and spa store in Loves Park, got a video gambling license last summer.

Under state law, the businesses had to get liquor licenses from local authorities to obtain licenses for video gambling machines.

It’s a bit much for Mike Monseur, co-owner of two Godfather’s Pizza restaurants in Springfield that were among the first local establishments to receive gaming licenses.

“They have liquor licenses?” Monseur asks, sounding somewhat incredulous. “I don’t want to knock the pool and spa places, but I think that’s stretching it.”

Mayor Mike Houston on Tuesday drew a line by vetoing an ordinance approved last month that would have allowed Five Star Liquors, a package liquor store on Toronto Road, to get a liquor license to pour alcohol for wine tastings, which would allowed the store’s owner to get video gambling machines. In his veto message to the council, Houston said that he feared approval would prompt other package stores to seek liquor-pouring licenses so that they, too, could offer video gambling.

Godfather’s Pizza is one of three businesses with video gambling on Wabash Avenue between Chatham Road and MacArthur Boulevard. Godfather’s opens at 8 a.m., with gambling, not pizza and beer, the prime attraction.

The machines, controlled by the state from a centralized location, light up when alcohol can be served under terms of an establishment’s liquor license, which is often hours before most people get thirsty. Monseur said that he extended hours to allow video gambling. Employees had always come in during morning hours to make dough and otherwise prepare for the day.

“We weren’t always open at 8 o’clock,” Monseur said. “When we got the video gaming, we just said we’ll go ahead and open, since we already have people there.”

More chances to gamble could be on the way. A bill to allow truck stops to double the number of machines from a maximum of five to ten is awaiting action by the state Senate. Arnold said it’s aimed at out-of-state truckers and that Illinois residents aren’t the target audience.

“The drivers are waiting in lines for the games,” Arnold said. “That doesn’t make a lot of sense to make people wait to play a game.”

The state’s definition of a truck stop, where gambling is allowed 24 hours a day, doesn’t mandate that establishments be located near interstates or cater to bona fide truckers. Rather, the business must control three acres of land, owned or leased, and sell at least 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel per month, which isn’t a hard mark to hit, given that the average U.S. gas station sells twice that amount, according to NACS, a convenience store and fuel retailing trade group. There must also be a convenience store, parking spaces for commercial vehicles and separate fueling islands for commercial vehicles that run on diesel.

So it is that a Qik-N-EZ on Peoria Road qualifies, even though the business doesn’t look much different than a run-of-the-mill gas station.

Chris Stone, proprietor of Lucy’s Place that boasts five locations in Springfield storefronts and a dozen elsewhere in the state, guesses that more than half of the gamblers at truck stops live in Illinois.

“I think they like to go to truck stops because they’re 24/7,” Stone says.

Given that video gambling outside casinos became legal less than two years ago, Stone says that it’s too soon to expand the number of machines allowed in establishments licensed as truck stops.

“I wouldn’t necessarily make too many operational changes,” Stone says. “I think people have to see how the program works.”

If any establishments are allowed to have an increased number of machines, it should be fraternal and veterans organizations that do charitable works, Stone says.

That would be fine with Mike Walton, finance officer for American Legion Post 32 on Sangamon Avenue. Truck stops already have an advantage because they can offer gambling around the clock, he said. But he’s not complaining about how video gambling is playing out.

“I’m happy,” Walton said. “It’s better than I thought it would be.”

Before the advent of legal video gambling, the American Legion post had so-called gray machines, which were considered illegal but widely ignored by law enforcement. Road Ranger truck stops also had gray machines that Arnold says were removed about five years ago to avoid any chance that his businesses wouldn’t get licensed based on concerns about allowing illicit gambling. Both Walton and Arnold agree that video gambling is more popular now than in the days of gray machines.

“I think it’s because it’s legal,” Walton says. “The gaming board has made it so that you can see what’s going on.”

Pointing to gaming board records that show the average net per machine in Springfield has declined between September and February, Stone says that he believes that Springfield and Sangamon County are near the saturation point.

“There’s only so many dollars that you can do here in Springfield or Sangamon County, just like Rockford or anywhere else,” Stone said.

So far as Anita Bedell is concerned, there are too many machines.

Bedell, executive director of Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems, points out that gamblers in Springfield have lost $14 million since legal video gambling began less than two years ago and gamblers in Sangamon County establishments have lost an additional $4.4 million. It’s money that many can’t afford to lose, especially with high unemployment, she says.

“We’re coming on to the one-year point in some of these places,” she said. “You’re going to get gambling addicts – those are going to be the best customers. They’re going to gamble until they lose everything. You’ll probably see an increase in crime. They’ll embezzle, they’ll steal, they’ll do check fraud.”

The only chance for reductions in machines lies in local governments, Bedell said, which can prohibit video gambling machines. And that has proven an uphill fight for gambling foes.

“It’s going to be everywhere,” Bedell says. “It already is, almost.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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