There is, as the Review has said several times, a case to be made for continuing video gaming in Forest Park. But local bar owners and the gaming machine industry, which has funded 99 percent of the current campaign, have not made that case.
The village’s mayor and council, which precipitated this divisive three-plus year debacle, meanwhile, have done nothing to place the limited benefits of allowing gaming to continue within a broader case for the village’s economic growth. HOBO, just arrived, seems likely to close shortly on Roosevelt Road. A car dealership has sat empty through robust years of recovery for the auto industry. Village government has a structural deficit and can only say that any source of new revenue, even one as paltry as the $165,000 raised by video gaming in the only fiscal year for which there are numbers, is welcome.
Well that is not good enough.
Meanwhile we have a determined group of voters long opposed to gaming who have been undercut and insulted by bar owners and politically connected hacks in tawdry attacks on what passes for democracy in this burg. That, even after two advisory votes made clear that Forest Parkers did not want video gaming in the first place.
Here’s the argument for video gaming in Forest Park: By hook and by crook Forest Park bar owners got gaming approved in town. After two years, it has not brought rack and ruin to Madison Street. Crime is not soaring. It has put a few extra bucks into the hands of small business owners who tell anecdotal stories of the good deeds they have done — pay raises for loyal staff, more donations to local charities, and reinvestment in their self-admitted challenged businesses. We assume they put some extra money into their earnings as well.
And, they say, gaming is essential to remaining competitive with bar owners touting gaming machines with bright neon in Berwyn, North Riverside and Melrose Park. Who exactly decided that Forest Park’s natural alignment is with North Riverside and Berwyn and not with River Forest, Elmhurst or Oak Park, communities which have strategically chosen to aim higher? Another reason Forest Park should have thought through a strategy years ago.
Here’s why we think video gaming is a losing proposition for Forest Park:
Video gaming has diminished, not enhanced, the appeal of Madison Street as a destination. Wait until, inevitably, a court challenge or a new bar owner breaks the unenforceable prohibition on gaudy gambling signage. The promise of many but not all current gaming license holders to not add signage is a PR tactic, not a legal protection.
There isn’t enough money falling through to the village to make this worth the trouble and the angst. The village government has a budget of almost $20 million and a deficit initially pegged this year at nearly $2 million. The nickels and dimes from gaming total out to $165,000 in one fiscal year. That’s puny. Beyond that, technology and the Supreme Court guarantee that the near future of video gaming is on your phone, not in your neighborhood bar. Placing our bet for the future on obsolete technology based in businesses that need this crutch in order to stay in business is not a strategy.
It is impossible to ignore that virtually all the money for the second-rate but plentiful mailers — Prohibition? Really? Taking credit for residential property values increasing? Goofy — is pouring in from the gaming industry with only two local bar owners kicking in during the last reporting period. That says a lot.
Also impossible to ignore are the tactics used by gaming backers/bar owners/current and former elected officials over these years to block a vote on this issue. At the Review, we’ve never been fans of citizen referendums. We’re old-fashioned and believe voters elect — and then potentially un-elect — officials who make hard choices. In this case though we make an exception. If ever a vote has been earned, it is in this case.
The divide that this cynical desecration of democracy has caused will linger in this small town and may well lead directly to the unseating of the current mayor next spring by residents simply outraged at the way they have been treated.
We are at a crossroads for the village. This is a consequential vote for Forest Park and its future both as it relates to video gaming and to how this town will govern itself going forward.
The vote will be over in less than two weeks. We appreciated the acknowledgement of both sides during a Review debate of this issue that there are good people who care about this town active on all sides of this issue. When the vote is over, all of those good people will need to find ways to mend this fracture.