Updated Oct. 30, 2012 – 4:45 p.m.

Mayor Anthony Calderone got an earful Thursday night at an open forum to discuss whether local ordinances should be changed to permit video gambling in Forest Park. Around 14 people spoke at the hearing, sometimes arguing amongst themselves.

The majority of the audience members were local tavern or business owners, and most of the speakers who took the microphone favored video gambling. All four village commissioners were in attendance as audience members, but none spoke except the mayor. A court reporter transcribed the hearing.

Brian Begley of Morris Gaming in Skokie characterized video gambling as “strictly regulated” and said state-sponsored gambling promised to bring 49,000 jobs in capital improvements to the state of Illinois.

Begley predicted Forest Park could stand to earn $300,000 annually in unrestricted revenue. He said trial runs in Rockford have already generated $21,000 since September, and “people are having a lot of fun with it.”

Calderone noted gambling operators had besieged him with figures of potential revenue.

“We don’t know. … They are just numbers,” Calderone said.

He also pointed out that state legislators could decide to withhold any local refund for their own needs.

Kathy Gilroy, a former Forest Park resident who now lives in Villa Park, spoke of the social toll of what she called “convenience gambling” including “addictions, bankruptcies, crime, corruption, divorces, embezzlements, homelessness, poverty and suicides.”

Gilroy, who once worked in the cigarette machine business, has spent over a decade fighting against Illinois legalized gambling and illegal slot machines.

“To generate $300,000 a year in taxes for Forest Park, families would need to lose $6 million per year,” Gilroy told the group. “No one is born a gambler. People try it when it is convenient.

“At a 1-percent addiction rate, which 160 Forest Park residents are you willing to sacrifice on the altar of profit?”

She said also said video gambling sucked money away from legal nonprofit gambling, such as church bingo games.

Ann Marie Swatos of Jim’s Pour Decision (formerly Zambonie’s) in Forest Park said their family-owned tavern’s profitability was tighter.

“When video gaming came became a possibility, we realized it could literally make or break our business,” Swatos said. “We’re all adults with personal responsibility. You can’t force someone to gamble or drink.”

Marty Sorice, an Elmhurst resident who owns Blueberry Hill, Shortstop Inn and Circle Inn read a three-page letter he had posted online at the Forest Park Review’s website. He took issue with revenue calculations cited previously in the Review.

He also predicted the machines had already lost their novelty and said revenue would drop after “one or two years.” But, Sorice said, “any revenue is better than none.”

Slainte owner and Des Plaines resident Chris Fleming said the Rivers Casino near his home had taken customers from Madison Street. He urged support for video poker.

“Quit being the nanny and allow people to do as they please,” Fleming said.

One of the few non-business owners who spoke against video gambling was Freida Murray, who said she thought gambling would not bring in enough money for the “element” it would attract.

“The strip place would have brought in more money than the gambling,” she said, to audience laughter. Forest Park resident Ken DeGori attempted to open a strip club in 2008 in the 1400 block of Industrial Drive.

“The strip club would have brought in millions, but it’s the element [that would be attracted]. We don’t need the element,” said Murray.

Calderone said the decision on whether to allow video gambling in Forest Park would be made over two village council meetings. Such a decision does not require voter approval.

Former commissioner Marty Tellalian asked for more information.

“This is a decision that’s difficult to make without the facts. A lot of studies have been done,” he said.

Tallalian said he was concerned that video gambling would “erode the nature of [Madison] Street.”

“On Friday and Saturday night the police are running around like their hair’s on fire,” Tellalian said. “Throw a $100 loss on somebody who’s already intoxicated and what might happen?”

Zig Stutz, who formerly led the Forest Park Liquor Association and at one time owned 11 establishments in town, gave his own experience of live video poker machines in a bar he owns in Fox Lake.

“We’ve had them for just under a month, and so far they’re paying out more than they’re bringing in,” Stutz said. “There are not lines out the door, but it’s not a gambling roost out there with people gambling away their whole paychecks.”

Losing business to nearby taverns offering video gambling has already begun, said Ron Milchhoefer Jr., manager of R Place in the 1500 block of Harlem Avenue. He said an amateur sports team abandoned his bar for an establishment with video gambling.

“I lost $250, $300 a night,” he said.

The group also heard from some members of the imbibing community. Resident Frank Rolff admitted that he had traveled, on occasion, to neighboring towns to illegally gamble on video poker machines that paid $40 for 40 credits.

“I got to the casino once a month. They have about 1,000 machines there, and I play most of them … Video gaming is good for the town and good for us,” he said.

Joe Davis said, “I frequent a lot of bars and the machines give you something to do besides drinking.”

The mayor will host another forum at a later date. The Nov. 1 scheduled forum was cancelled by the village. Calderone said he was surprised so few residents spoke up.

“If the general public are not voicing an opinion, we have to interpret that as an acceptance,” he said.

But he chided bar owners and said, “If video gaming was not allowed in Illinois, would you all be closing your bars tomorrow?”

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...