Video gaming machines have been popping up in Illinois bars and restaurants for nearly four years. For the most part, the increase in gaming machines and in revenue across the state has been steady.
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There are nearly 24,000 video gaming machines in Illinois, and the amount played over the last few years is in the billions of dollars -- with a b.
Some of the money goes back to the players who win. The rest is split among machine operators, business owners, the state, and the community where the machines are located.
Michael Gelatka, president of the Illinois Gaming Machine Operators Association, says he’s been satisfied with how the process has been regulated.
“I think that was the strength of the Illinois model,” he said. “It wasn’t everywhere you can sell lottery. It’s in bars and restaurants.”
That has helped businesses facing closure, he says, by offering a seemingly reliable revenue stream.
“It’s helped to improve local community. Instead of all the money going to a handful of boats in larger communities, this is driving money into local economy,” Gelatka says.
Beyond The Numbers
But there are two sides to every coin, and there are several ways to look at the impact of video gaming — both on paper and in socio-economic terms.
Gelatka says there has been no noticeable change in crime as a result of video gaming.
Not everyone agrees. Anita Bedell is with the Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems.
“There has been embezzlement. There’s been bankruptcy, divorce, and crime – all of the results of video gambling,” Bedell says, “and that will just continue to grow.”
Notice that she calls it video gambling instead of video gaming.
The distinction is important because her group also monitors the state gaming numbers, but she focuses her attention on how much money players have lost.
Bedell’s group tallies the top ten communities by dollars lost by players. Since 2012, they include Springfield, Rockford, Decatur, Bloomington, Champaign, and Peoria.
Bedell says her group will continue to educate communities which want to add or expand video gaming.
Reliable Revenue For Rockford
Consider another perspective: 25% of gaming revenue goes to the state of Illinois while 5% of the revenue from video gaming machines stays in the communities which allow them.
Rockford City Administrator Jim Ryan says the city uses the money from video gaming for its fleet of vehicles.
“We were having to, you know, talk to other municipalities and buy used equipment for ambulances and fire trucks – and it’s very capital-intensive,” he says.
Not any more.
He says video gaming has been a steady revenue stream, bringing in $1.2 million in 2014 and $1.3 million last year. At a time when the state is struggling to put together a budget, reliable revenue can be hard to find.
Ryan says he expects video gaming revenue will continue to increase, but adds that the city has tried to be mindful of how many new licenses are approved.
“We look at areas in terms of poverty and things like that,” Ryan explains, “but, if they’re not going to play in Rockford, they’re going to find a place to play.”
That’s where Robert Olsen, with the Outreach Foundation for Problem and Compulsive Gamblers, sees room for action.
“The Outreach Foundation doesn’t take a stand for or against gambling. It is here to stay,” he acknowledges. “Now, let’s help the people who have a problem with it. That’s all we really want to do.”
Olsen says the state’s casinos have self-exclusion programs in which players who struggle with gambling can register to be banned from casinos. He says there is not a similar program in place for the video gaming terminals.
“It has to be addressed by our legislators to allow people who admit that they have a gambling problem, that they are not allowed in these parlors to continue their addiction and destroying their lives over it,” Olsen says.
Gelatka says the Illinois Gaming Machine Operators Association has been working with the Illinois Gaming Board "to come up with realistic options for irresponsible gamblers to acknowledge such and for location employees to be better educated about problem gambling and all of the options available to the small percentage of players who find themselves using video gaming for reasons other than as entertainment."
He says his group will continue to support business owners and operators. And he encourages those who like video gaming to make their feelings known.
“We are always open to a call or a call to your local legislator,” he says, “so that they realize that you are enjoying the new option that you never had before.”
A spokesperson for the state gaming board says there have been indications that the growth in video gaming could eventually level off, but says the numbers could reach unseen heights if Chicago ever chooses to opt in.
· WNIJ reporter Jessie Schlacks contributed to this report