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After listening to the council meeting last night about video gaming, I went away with a big headache.  A handful of residents, mostly business owners, spoke before the council regarding gaming revenue.  It was educational.

We have to go back first to when the council first approved gaming in Decatur.  I remember the meetings very well.  The council members saw it as a way to boost existing businesses, primarily bars, who have seen their profits shrink since a statewide smoking ban was put into effect and of course, the Great Recession.  The city wasn’t expecting to make significant revenue from video gaming.  The city’s cut is only 5%, while the state makes out like a bandit with a sizeable chunk.  Councilman Funk called the state’s motives a “revenue grab”.

The possibility of gaming parlors locating in nearly every strip mall in town was nowhere on anybody’s radar at the time.  It certainly wasn’t discussed at the council meetings back then.  I’m sure nobody would have predicted that nearly $70,000,000 would be placed into the 350+ slot machines in Decatur in just 2015 alone.  Nobody dreamed there would be 350+ slot machines by 2016 to begin with.  Illinois now has more slot machines than Nevada.

Because there are so many slot machines in Decatur, local businesses have seen their revenue from gaming machines cut by nearly 50% in the past year or so.  The pieces of the pie are simply too small to go around.

What irked me the most about the meeting is that nobody on the council really offered any solutions.  Overall, they seemed reluctant to do anything.  Raising terminal fees was discussed and I expect that to happen soon.  Most of all, the term “free market” kept being thrown around.  The council hopes that the free market will determine when the area has been over-saturated.  I think it already has but that isn’t stopping new parlors from opening up, sucking more life out of our local businesses.

It seems like we should be able to zone areas properly so that gaming parlors aren’t popping up anywhere and everywhere.  However, if you take a look at the city map indicating liquor licenses, which are where most of the gaming machines are located, they aren’t in the “nice” neighborhoods. The inner-city has to put up with the worst of everything.  How are we supposed to redevelop neighborhoods when we congregate the most undesirable businesses inside them?  What a mess!

I think the licenses should be capped.  It’s obvious the free market isn’t working, at least not in ways that benefit local businesses, which was supposed to be the whole point.

As a full disclaimer, I don’t go to bars and I don’t even drink but many of our locally-owned bars do contribute in positive ways to the community, unlike out-of-state parlors.  There’s countless benefits, sport’s team sponsorships, and other charitable giving that comes from responsible bars.  These points were brought up by a local owner.  I had never really considered this aspect before.

I’m not saying people can’t place a bet here and there.  That’s their choice but I don’t think slot machines need to be available every twelve feet in the city.

More than anything, I haven’t talked to one person who likes what is becoming of Decatur, in regards to the gaming parlors.  It’s not the Decatur I want to live in.  If we’re trying to market Decatur in a positive light, then why are we settling for something that affects people’s lives and perceptions of Decatur so negatively?  It’s easy to answer that.  It may not have been about revenue for the city when they passed it but it sure is now.  This, many of us did foresee.

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gaming sites decatur

A few weeks ago the city council received data about the number of video gaming machines and the revenue generated from them.  I think everyone in the city is well aware that gaming machines are multiplying like rabbits within Decatur.  When the city council approved video gaming a few years ago, they assumed the machines would primarily be located in bars, not family restaurants and gaming parlors named after women.

In just a short drive down Oakland Avenue from Ravina Park Road to Pershing Road, I have my pick of at least four different places to gamble my life away.

I keep wondering how many people actually play slot machines?  Apparently, a whole bunch of people and they sure are willing to part with their money.  Below is a screen grab of the council meeting indicating the amount of dollars going in and out of the machines since 2012.

video gaming money in and out

In 2015, $69,681,280 was gambled.  Out of that $51,744,991 was paid back out.  Doing some simple arithmetic, we know that people placing bets in Decatur lost $17,936,289.  Nearly $70 million dollars was placed into slot machines in just 2015.  Holy throw your money in the trash Batman!

Just think if that $70 million had been thrown in a pot for city improvements.  Again, doing some simple math, including projected dollars for 2016, since 2012 people have bet $228,511,186. That’s $228 million dollars in just four years! We could have streets paved in gold in a couple decades, if that money was going for anything worthwhile.  In contrast, the city’s 5 cent gas tax for street improvements is bringing in a measly $1.5 million dollars a year, which means we’ll have streets paved in dirt in a couple decades. He-he

It just makes me sick.  Well, if we’re going to be stuck with the stupid things, let’s at least makes some real money off them.  For gaming parlors, I’d suggest raising the yearly permit fee to $1500 per machine.  For bars, eh maybe $500 and for family restaurants, I’m not sure.  I really don’t think they belong there in the first place.

I’m not sure what the actual fees should be.  I’d have to comb through the data more, and consult with experts but fees need to be enough to bring in significant revenue, yet not so much that we drive off business that can help fund city improvements.  It’s a fine line to walk.

And I used to think the city manager’s suggestion of $750 per machine was ridiculous.  After seeing these numbers, he was actually being very conservative.

On Monday, July 18th the city council will have a study session on video gaming.  Feel free to follow along as I live Tweet council meetings on my new Twitter account @decaturnavigatr.  That isn’t a typo.  Twitter doesn’t allow enough characters in the username for the blog name. I assume you can just search for Decatur Navigator on Twitter too.

 

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cone flowers in the morning

Last night I learned that someone I grew up with and have admired for a number of years passed away in January.  Her younger brother and I were best friends in the neighborhood we grew up in on the north side of Decatur.  She was good friends with my oldest brother.  I was shocked to learn she had passed, and as I understand it her death was sudden and unexpected.  She was only 51 years old and leaves behind her husband of nearly 30 years and two young children.

She used to blog regularly and I always enjoyed reading her posts.  It wasn’t so much what she wrote that I found extraordinarily impressive but rather the peaceful spirit that emanated through her words. I always admired how positive and genuine she came across.  As someone who can go too heavy on the snark and sarcasm, I admired her steadfast kindness. I’m not the only one.  Reading through the comments left by others on her memorial page, everyone who met her, even briefly, felt the same way I did.

She had achieved great respect and success in the business world, working for some of the biggest corporate names as a marketing executive but she was down to earth and it was obvious she never let it go to her head.  Even though she had lived in Chicago, Japan, and New York City before settling in California, she never forgot Decatur.

When she was young she was always reading books.  She devoured books!  She had an insatiable appetite for knowledge. When she left for college, everyone expected great things from her and nobody was let down. She also never lost her passion for books and knowledge.  She aspired to be a writer, enjoyed photography and urban farming and was studying Mussar, Jewish spiritual teachings, shortly before she died.

Whenever I’d become dismayed with the world, which is easy to do today, I’d check out her Twitter feed.  She didn’t post often but her thoughts were always refreshing to my soul.  In a world where many people have mastered the art of being mean through social media, her words were like a refuge. She was genuine about it too.  She didn’t have to study self-help books and plaster her social feeds with inspirational memes to appear to be a good person.  It was just who she was and I admired her greatly for that.

It especially hit me hard that someone I had grown up with, in the neighborhood that I often write about, had passed away.  I’m getting to the age where it’s foolish to believe tomorrow is guaranteed. It’d be foolish to think I have all the time in the world to do the things I’d like to do, say the things I’d like to say, reconnect with people who mean the world to me, or be the person I’d like to be somewhere down the road when I finally get it all together.  I don’t think there’s any magical time or place when that happens.  Too many of us wait to live the life we’d like to live, not realizing no waiting is required to simply be a better person. Nobody remembers what we achieve in life nearly as much as how we treat others.  I definitely learned that from Sharon.  I can’t outdo Maya Angelou on the subject, so I’ll leave it with her words.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

 

 

 

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I watched the city council meeting on Tuesday to discover what goals the city council are prioritizing.  It was a somber, kind of depressing discussion because, though were goals expressed, I didn’t sense much confidence that any of them are going to happen any time soon.

Every council member was in agreement that the city would benefit from constructing an overpass on MLK over I-72 to open the area up to development and ease traffic along 51.

Another issue that was brought up was parking in downtown.  Though there are several thriving restaurants, there’s few retail shops.  One of the reasons for this is that there isn’t enough available parking.  Downtown parking has been an issue forever with no easy or cheap answers.  Parking meters were removed a few years ago and angled parking was added but there’s only so many areas to park a car.  Nobody offered any solutions but the issue was brought up.

Neighborhood redevelopment, infrastructure, the Us-51 bypass, and the need for major road improvements on Brush College Road were also echoed by many but overshadowing everything was the need to attract more jobs.

Finding money for the goals is tricky.  Increasing taxes and fees is out the window because the city has already been there and done that too many times.  For neighborhood redevelopment, the key is likely public/private partnerships, and possible state/federal grants.  Residency requirements for city employees will definitely be discussed further when union contract talks come up, which I’m sure will go over well!  The city would like to keep city workers here to keep more revenue here.  Residency requirements for new non-union employees has already been approved.  The city is bleeding upper-middle income families to nearby communities, leaving older and lower-income people behind to financially support the city.  That kind of math just doesn’t work.   It’s a tough, tough issue but not unique to Decatur.

I hope I didn’t thoroughly depress everyone.  I’m still optimistic and I am an out-of-the-box thinker, for better or worse.  I think there’s things we can do.

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The city council will be discussing community goals at the July 5th meeting.  A PDF file of the proposed goals can be downloaded from the city’s website.  I’m not going to go over every single item since anyone can read through the document but there were some things that stuck out that I found particularly interesting.

The goals are grouped together into five main categories:

  • Prioritize & Support Infrastructure Improvements
  • Creation of First Class Tech Community
  • Continued Creation – Development Community of Choice
  • Neighborhood Revitalization
  • Organizational Operations

Infrastructure improvements and neighborhood revitalization are fairly self-explanatory.  Organizational operations pertain mainly to city staff operating more efficiently.  The creation of a first class tech community refers to fiber optic cables.  Development community of choice refers to developing pro-growth business policies, connecting Decatur to Amtrak by either bus or rail, extending city bus hours on certain routes, skills training, amongst other things.

Things That Caught My Attention

Respondents requested more business incentives, restaurants on the city’s south side, Chipotle, Trader Joes, Burlington Coat Factory, and a food truck park in front of Northgate Mall.  Road improvements for Mound and Main Street from Garfield to Eldorado were also requested, as well as beautifying the city’s main corridors.

Truck Park?

I would probably agree with all of the public’s recommendations listed in the presentation except the truck park in front of Northgate Mall.  I think Northgate would benefit by demolishing the closed car wash on Pershing to make the mall more visible from Pershing.  With an abandoned eyesore blocking the view of the mall, I can’t imagine it impresses too many prospective retailers.  I don’t think a truck park would impress them either.  A more welcoming and impressive entrance from Pershing is needed, in my opinion.  I’m not opposed to a truck park locating elsewhere in the city if it fits in well with the surroundings.

Mound Road Retail Development

The other main thing that jumped out at me was retail development at the Mound and US 51 intersection.  It is listed as a goal.  The Target area is pretty much full, so I’m assuming the city is wanting to continue to develop other areas in the vicinity, possibly to the north and/or northeast of Target.  This is probably one of the busiest intersections in the city and I’m sure Decatur would love to capture shoppers before they head on north to Forsyth and attract out-of-towners from nearby I-72.

I grew up in the neighborhood directly to the southeast of the intersection so I know a lot of the history surrounding that part of town, from the neighborhood being annexed by the city in the late 80s, when Walmart opened just to the north, to Mound Middle School being closed, and Target being built.  Heck, I remember when Mound Road was rock and horses and chickens lived on the property where Thorntons gas station is now located.  And I’m not THAT old!

I know more land will be developed for retail purposes in that area.  It’s just a matter of time and I’m okay with that as long as it doesn’t destroy the character and property values of the surrounding neighborhoods.  If it’s another gaming parlor, heck no!  If it’s tasteful restaurants and retail that would fit well inside a neighborhood, I’d consider it.  It could be a tremendous asset to the area if it’s done with the neighborhood in mind. My land management training is kicking in here.  Natural resource management is primarily about land management.

I’d like to see standards built into any type of proposed development in that area with strict guidelines as to what can locate there and what can’t to preserve what’s already functioning well.  It makes no sense to sacrifice a neighborhood for retail.  Responsible homeowners tend to stay and remain invaluable assets to the community, if they’re happy in their surroundings and with the city.  Retail businesses come and go.

Well, I’ll end it here because I’m getting long-winded.  I’ll have a rundown of what the council members had to say on here next week.  Have a happy and safe 4th of July!

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