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By Nona Tepper
A pair of Forest Park bar owners and two video gambling opponents debated the pros and cons of video gambling at the Forest Park Review office on Oct. 11, in a broad conversation that covered economic development, signage, the role the village council played in creating an issue that has divided the town and more.
Jordan Kuehn, president of the Let Forest Park Vote on Video Gaming ballot initiative committee; Amy Binns-Calvey, a resident and member with Let Forest Park Vote; James Watts, a resident and chairman of the Let Forest Park Grow ballot initiative committee; and Lynn Sorice, a member of Let Forest Park Grow, participated in the conversation, which was moderated by Forest Park Review Publisher Dan Haley, Staff Reporter Nona Tepper and Senior Editor Bob Uphues.
Let Forest Park Vote seeks to put an end to video gambling in the village's bars and restaurants. Let Forest Park Grow supports the machines and the revenue they produce.
"[Gamblers] are looking at it as a form of entertainment," said Watts, who is co-owner of O'Sullivan's Public House, a bar on Madison Street. "They're there, they're having a couple beers and they say, 'I'm going to throw $20 in the machine.' They either get all their beers for free or they lose $20. They're adults and they're making a decision on their part."
He said most of his customers who play video games are regulars from the Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park communities, and that the money O'Sullivan's earns from the practice allows him to reinvest in his business, employees, and helps the village plug its approximately $1.9 million budget deficit with its portion of gaming revenues.
Sorice, owner of several local bars with her husband, Martin Sorice, likewise said the profits from video gaming have helped fund a $250,000 renovation of Blueberry Hill on Desplaines Avenue.
The Sorices own Blueberry Hill, Angelo O'Leary's, Carole's, Circle Inn, Doc Ryan's Bar & Grill, Pioneer Tap and Shortstop Lounge. She said she believes the revenue from video gaming helps young, vulnerable establishments survive their first few years in business.
"If you were going to open a new restaurant, why would you choose to go to a place that doesn't allow video gaming and gives you that crutch?" Sorice asked. "Why would you choose to come to Forest Park?
"A lot of us feel like we're just fighting for our existence and the truth is we are," she added. "I know Marty and I, we're going to be OK. I know we're going to survive. … Maybe we won't have as many places or whatever, but we'll survive because we'll adjust and do whatever we need to do. But it's just a lot of these other guys I feel so sorry for. They're not going to make it."
Watts and Sorice pointed to an agreement 12 bar owners had signed, promising never to display video gaming signs outside their buildings. Owners from Healy's Westside, Beacon Pub, Duffy's, Fat Duck, Doc Ryan's, R Place, Slainte, Murphy's, Mugsy's and The Golden Steer signed the agreement, along with O'Sullivan's and Blueberry Hill.
While taking those bar owners at their word, Kuehn said that agreement would have no binding effect on future bar owners. Kuehn said he doesn't believe the village ordinance banning video gaming signage would survive a First Amendment legal challenge.
"What's to stop a new bar owner coming into town who isn't on board with that and challenging the law, taking it to court and having it overturned?"
And once one bar has signs, other bar owners will follow that example, Kuehn said, because they'd see themselves at a competitive disadvantage.
"Would you handicap yourselves or would you keep up with the competition in town?" he asked.
Let Forest Park Grow has so far raised $60,000 to fund their campaign, with some of that funding coming from video game vendors and alcohol distributors, Watts said.
"I don't think it's going to be a surprise to a lot of people that there is a lot of money invested in keeping video gaming in town," Binns-Calvey said, adding: "Video gaming machines are specifically designed to be particularly addictive, so I think that they're sort of growing their base of addicted gamblers."
She said she believes jobs created through video gaming are often not high-income and that video gaming negatively impacts other, non-liquor license holding businesses in the area.
"I think that if somebody walks into Forest Park and they've got $20 extra bucks in their pocket and if there isn't a machine, they're much more likely to buy another round of drinks, they're much more likely to buy more hamburgers," Binns-Calvey said. "I think convenience gambling is exactly that: Somebody who's standing there like, 'Oh, here's a machine. Let me throw $20 into it."
But Watts said that if O'Sullivan's lost its video gambling machines, he was worried his customers would ditch his business for bars in nearby towns with gambling, like Berwyn, Cicero, Elmwood Park and more.
He also was concerned over how the loss of revenue would impact the village. As of Sept. 17, the total amount the village has collected from video gambling since the first machines came to the village in October 2016 is $287,097, according to data provided by the village of Forest Park, which includes all license fees, permits, and the village's share of the terminal income.
"As a percentage of the village budget, that's more than they get for building permits, that's more than they get for the red light cameras, that's more than they get for all the other business licenses times four, that's more than they get for the gas and utility tax," Watts said. "It isn't a small amount of money."
Kuehn called video gaming revenue a "band aid" for the village's larger financial woes, noting that since the Supreme Court recently legalized online sports betting, he expects bar video gambling machines to become obsolete in the next few years.
When video gambling was introduced into Forest Park in October 2016, he said the village's budget was balanced. Now, the village is running deficits. He doesn't believe officials have done anything to address that larger issue.
"I see it as working backwards rather than taking the steps needed to actually grow the village and reinvest in the village," Kuehn said.
Kuehn said Let Forest Park Vote will honor the residents' vote and not circulate another petition to block video gambling after the Nov. 6 binding referendum if residents vote to maintain video gambling. But he added that strong leadership from the village government could have avoided creating the bitterness that exists between those for and against video gambling.
"If they would have made their case to the public, more openly tried to win hearts and minds, I don't think we'd be in this decision right now," Kuehn said. "But the fact that the people saw and they felt spurned by the mayor and the council, that ignited a lot of this divisiveness, and I think this all could have been avoided."
Watts called the divisive tenor over video gambling "very unfortunate." He added that uncertainty over the practice sends a bad message to prospective businesses.
Changing the rules midstream, Watts said, would be problematic.
"We should be in that position to count on the village to back up the position they put us in," he said.
Binns-Calvey likewise called the tone of conversations unfortunate, but she said thousands of residents who wanted a vote were denied by nuisance advisory referenda that were placed on the ballot twice instead of a binding question, which inspired a feeling of injustice among Forest Parkers, drawing frustration and heightening passions among local residents.
"Hopefully the village is healthy. That should be what the end result is, whatever is best for the village," she said of the Nov. 6 vote.