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.