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Municipalities, establishments talk video gambling

Three video gambling machines are available at the Blackberry Inn in unincorporated Elburn. Video gambling also is allowed in Sugar Grove.
Three video gambling machines are available at the Blackberry Inn in unincorporated Elburn. Video gambling also is allowed in Sugar Grove.

A sign advertising video gaming sits outside of Blackberry Bar and Grill on Route 47, south of Elburn. The establishment’s three machines sit inside the bar area, in a space marked off by yellow tape, warning that no one under the age of 21 may enter.

The machines are among a handful in the area that have been installed in the months since video gaming went live in the state in October 2012. The machines allow patrons to make bets of $2, and each machine offers a variety of contests. Many municipalities across the state have banned the machines, but they are allowed in unincorporated areas across Kane County. And, because of a recent vote by the Village Board, they now are legal in Sugar Grove.

Hearings are scheduled for this week, and – if its license is approved by the Illinois Gaming Board – machines may be in the Sugar Grove American Legion by the end of the month. It’s the subject of debate in the village, it’s emerged as a campaign issue in the race for village president and there will be an advisory referendum about it on the ballot for the April 9 election. Trustee Kevin Geary, who is challenging incumbent Village President Sean Michels, pushed to table the ordinance until after the April referendum, which resulted in a 3-3 vote. Michels broke the tie against tabling the ordinance.

Those who support the machines say businesses such as the American Legion would be at a disadvantage if they weren’t allowed. They point to the machines at Blackberry Bar and Grill and the likelihood that they soon will be installed at Calamity Jane’s, an establishment south of the Sugar Grove border. Video gaming also is allowed in North Aurora. Those who oppose it say the machines wouldn’t help a business and they offer little help to a municipality. Plus, they point to the negatives that could surface.

County Board member Melisa Taylor, a Sugar Grove resident, said, “I don’t think it’s a necessary part of life. … It’s adding one more temptation.”

Installing the machines

Establishments seeking to install video gaming machines must have a license to pour liquor, and then they must go through a process with the Illinois Gaming Board. Locally, many machines are installed by a Sugar Grove-based company, Tiger Amusements and Vending, and the placement of the machines also must follow specific rules. Someone must be designated to monitor the machines and be certain they are not used by minors.

Each machine offers a variety of games, including card games and line games. Establishments may have as many as five machines. If players win, the machine will dispense a ticket and the player may redeem the money at an ATM-like machine nearby.

When the state gave the green light for the machines, it made for a busy time for Jay Spoden, president of Tiger Electronics. Spoden said he installed 2,300 machines in four months.

Cliff Barker, the chaplain for the Sugar Grove American Legion, said the machines will be installed in a separate area of the establishment. The legion had an open house last year to answer questions that residents may have about the process. While the legion is a members-only club, Barker said it is open to the public for events throughout the year. He said the legion hopes to make about $2,000 a month from the machines, but the desire to have them installed goes beyond that. For instance, those who enjoy video gaming might be drawn to it for a night out and spend an evening at an establishment.

Barker said he is familiar with the games and they are relatively loose, meaning those who play have a good chance of winning. The amounts that can be won are relatively modest, and it’s not the same experience as going to a casino. He said the legion can’t afford to have problems from the machines. He knows it could lose its liquor license, and there also is the matter of its reputation, considering that legions are known as organizations that serve American military veterans.

“We are an asset to the community and not a liability,” Barker said. “We’ve asked for a chance to show that we can do this right.”

Spoden calls it an entertainment option, saying the experience is similar to going to a movie and spending $10 on the movie and $5 on popcorn. He said someone might spend the same on a lottery ticket.

“It’s not going to be Las Vegas,” he said.

Taylor, however, said she doesn’t think customers would choose a place simply because it has gambling.

“I don’t think that’s what motivates someone to go to a particular restaurant,” she said. “I’m not going to go someplace to ‘gamble’ if I don’t enjoy the food.”

Sugar Grove referendum

Barker said the discussion at the Village Board level “has been focused on morality, on the right and wrong, and that’s not something we have focused on.” But while village leaders are not required to do anything as a result of an advisory referendum, it’s possible a strong vote against video gaming could lead to trustees reconsidering the decision.

Geary stressed he is not against video gaming, but he has heard from people on three sides of the issue – those who are for it, those against and those who are indifferent. He called the legion “a good neighbor” and said he is confident the establishment will adhere to rules. But he said he wants to be certain that most residents agree with him.

“I think it’s an important enough issue to hear their voices,” he said. “And what better way than to use the democratic process to achieve that.”

Michels pointed out the state allows video gaming, and it’s up to municipalities to ban it. He said he hasn’t heard from a lot of people who oppose gaming. He said a lot of thought has been put into the project, and as long as those who have the machines follow state mandates, they should be allowed. But he said he would reconsider the issue based on referendum results.

Trustee Mari Johnson voted to allow video gaming. She said it is an economic issue, and because there are options near Sugar Grove, this is an opportunity for eligible places in town to compete. She said the legion has gone “the extra mile” to show it will follow any rules and restrictions. As far as the referendum, she hasn’t heard from many people who are opposed, but board members studied the issue and made a decision. And she said that is what board members are elected to do.

“I’ve been on the board for almost 18 years. I have no problem making a decision,” she said.

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