Nearly one year after Forest Park voters voted two to one against allowing video gambling in Forest Park in a non-binding advisory referendum, many Forest Park bar owners say that the lack of video gambling is hurting their business and making it hard for them to survive.
"I've definitely lost customers to other towns, there's no doubt about it," said Matt Sullivan the owner of Doc Ryan's, the biggest bar in town.
Sullivan says that bars in towns that allow video gambling machines can lower their prices and still make money because of the additional revenue from the video poker machines.
"The bars in other surrounding towns are dropping their food prices and beverage prices to keep their gamblers coming in," Sullivan said. "Tell me how I can compete against someone who has lower prices and is still making a profit."
Sullivan said that on a Sunday last fall he stopped by the Cordial Inn, a bar in Brookfield, and saw 20 of his former Sunday football regulars taking advantage of a great spread of food and lower drink prices.
"He's making it up on the back end," Sullivan said of the Cordial Inn bar owner.
Video gambling has been a huge success at the Cordial. State records indicate that the five video poker machines at the Cordial brought in about $20,000 in additional revenue to the bar in February. Bar owners keep 35 percent of the net proceeds from video gambling machines in their establishments.
State records show that the Cordial brings in much more video gambling revenue than most bars and restaurants that have the machines which were first legally allowed in Illinois in 2012. Most bars in Berwyn and Brookfield with the gambling machines get monthly revenue of 1,000 to $1,500 from each terminal. A maximum of five terminals can be placed in any single establishment so that most bar owners net from between $5,000 to $7,500 in additional revenue a month if they have the maximum number of machines.
Marty Sorice, who owns four bars in Forest Park, says that the average bar in Illinois that has video gambling nets from between $5,200 to $5,300 a month in revenue from the machines.
That additional revenue makes a big difference bar owners say. Not only does it go directly to the bottom line the additional revenue allows bars in other towns to undercut Forest Park bars and restaurants on price.
"How do we compete against that," Sorice said. "We can't. And eventually what will happen is that the bars in Forest Park, one by one, they will be put at such a competitive disadvantage that they will go out of business."
"If it was just the bars it would be one thing, but it's really impacting the restaurants too," Sorice said. "There's a lot of restaurants in this town hurting. It's not only bar issue it's a food, beverage issue. In all the bars and restaurants in Forest Park I only know one or two that are up year over year and, maybe there's more and I don't know it, but we are really hurting and the thing it's just going to get worse."
A number of bars in Forest Park are for sale, including Molly Malone's.
But it's almost impossible to sell a bar that doesn't have video gambling machines says Ronald Milchhoefer Jr. who has been trying to sell R Place for six months.
"Them not allowing video gaming has made our businesses worthless," said Milchhoefer who has owned R Place for 13 years. "Is there any single reason why anyone would want to own a bar where you can't compete on a level playing field?"
Milchhoefer points to a bar in North Riverside, The Sweet Spot, which sells buckets of beer for $11. They can afford to do that because of their revenue from video gambling, Milchhoefer says.
"I can't compete with that," Milchhoefer said. "It's absolutely destroying us. I've lost softball teams that I sponsored because they went to bars with video poker. I've lost customers. I have good friends who go to other bars. I see them there. My father plays video poker machines. I've lost numerous customers and I have nothing to bring them in."
Bar owners say that the village council should allow video poker or at least schedule another referendum. They say that the referendum took place when video gambling was new and now that it has been in effect for more than a year in communities throughout Illinois with no major problems people might view the issue differently.
Last month Elmwood Park decided to allow video gambling machines.
Village Council member Mark Hosty, who manages Healy's Westside, said that he recently talked to mayor of Countryside about video gambling.
"The mayor of Countryside was pretty clear that it's been absolutely no problems and a pretty good financial payoff for the village," Hosty said.
Hosty said that he thought the village would receive about $250,000 in additional revenue as the village's five percent cut of video gaming revenue. In 2013, the Village of Brookfield received $127,170.70 from video gambling. Berwyn got $146,389.78 and North Riverside got $21,847.89.
Commissioner Chris Harris is also in favor of allowing video gambling in Forest Park. Commissioner Rory Hoskins is opposed to video gambling. Commissioner Tom Mannix says he wouldn't mind the village council discussing the issue.
"I wouldn't oppose bringing it up in front of the council," Mannix said. "I just don't know it would serve any larger purpose. I just don't think that there's an appetite for approving it right now especially based off the referendum results."
And the man with the most say, Mayor Anthony Calderone, has no desire for the village council to change the status quo. The referendum vote was clear, Calderone said.
"That indication was pretty clear," Calderone said of the two to one vote against video gambling. "None of the bar owners are part of the legislative body of the village. I understand and respect their position. I believe that the elected officials felt that there was a strong enough feeling resonating as a result of that non-binding referendum to just leave it status quo."
Calderone said no elected officials have told him that they want the village council to take a vote on allowing video gambling.
"At this point in time there has been no desire to overturn the current prohibition of gambling in Forest Park," Calderone said. "None of the elected officials have indicated to me that they would like to see this type of legislation, so that's where we're at."
Many believe that Hosty would have to recuse himself from any vote on video gambling because of his association with Healy's so as long as Calderone and Hoskins are opposed to video gambling it is not likely to pass the village council. And as long as Calderone doesn't want the village council to take up the issue it is unlikely that the village council would even vote on the issue.
"The mayor controls the agenda," Hosty said. "It's all up to Tony whether or not it gets on that agenda."
And with village elections just one year away Hosty recognizes that Calderone and others wouldn't want to take the politically risky step of allowing something two thirds of voters, admittedly in a small-turnout election, voted against.
"From the political side it's a tough vote," Hosty said.
Hosty said that if video gambling was allowed in Forest Park it would not be the salvation of the bar business in Forest Park.
"I know there are a lot of upset bar owners; I don't think gambling is the only thing that's going to save their butts," Hosty said.
"It's been a tough economy for the last four or five years. The restaurant and bar business has taken it upon the chin. It's disposable income. We have outside competition in other communities like Rosemont that's popped up with a nice district there. I don't think gambling one way up or down is going to save our industry. It's a facet and it could help."
Calderone said that he knows business is soft on Madison Street, but is not sure how big a factor the lack of video gambling is.
"I don't know that I would necessarily attribute it to video gaming as I would more so the economy in general," he said.
"Nobody has given me copies of their tax returns and how bad business may be and how far it's dropping off, if it has dropped off based on previous years and did that business drop of before they even officially allowed the machines to go into the establishments," he added.
Calderone said that Rosemont is successful not because of video gambling.
"I've been at that Rosemont development," Calderone said. "That's hopping not because of video gaming. It's hopping because it's a new, large scale entertainment district."
Many bar owners are frustrated with Calderone's attitude.
"He won't give anybody a straight answer," Milchhoefer said. "He won't put it on the agenda. He's king and our hands are tied because he's also the liquor commissioner. His decision to do nothing on this has really threatened all of our businesses in town."
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