By Nona Tepper
Extra money for charitable causes and building renovations. A way for couples to enjoy a night out. A fill for the village budget, which faces about a $1 million deficit. Just a few of the reasons local bar owners support video gaming in Forest Park.
Since the Illinois Court of Appeals ruled the village will be able to vote, in a binding referendum, on the practice come November — overturning an earlier circuit court ruling that upheld the local electoral board's decision — the fate of video gambling looms. If the majority of people vote no, it will be outlawed in the village. But bar owners know how they're going to vote: Yes.
"It's a plus for our business, but it's also a plus for the community," James Watts, co-owner of O'Sullivan's Public House, 7244 Madison St., said. Watts filed the objection against Let Forest Park Vote on Video Gaming, the political action committee that fought to get the binding referendum question on the November ballot.
Since video gaming was legalized in Forest Park in October 2016, Watts' business has made $84,157 from the practice, according to April 17 data obtained from the Illinois Gaming Board. Watts has used the money to refurbish the beer garden at O'Sullivan's, pave an ADA-accessible ramp and construct a separate, discrete room where his games are housed. He said the money has also helped him invest in charitable causes, like donating a monthly dinner to the New Moms nonprofit in Oak Park, which provides transitional housing for low-income mothers.
"We did it before gaming, but if you don't have the revenue, something's gotta get cut and it's going to be the charitable stuff that will be the first, unfortunately," he said.
Watts noted that video gaming hasn't attracted the negative clientele many feared. He also contends it has increased local housing values because it helps area establishments thrive, and people are coming to Forest Park for the atmosphere Madison Street provides — and helped bring in revenue for the village. For fiscal year 2017, the village earned $17,921 from gaming, according to data provided by the village. For fiscal year 2018, the village has so far pocketed $156,648. The village's fiscal year runs from May 1 to April 30.
Ronald Milchhoefer Jr., co-owner of R Place with his father, said his food and drink sales increased 20 percent after video gaming came to 1527 Harlem Ave. He said couples will now come to his restaurant for dinner and, after eating, husbands will watch the ball game while wives play the slots.
"It's made us competitive; it's made our business worth more," he said, adding that it also helped him compete with the neighboring communities of Berwyn and North Riverside, as well as national chains like Buffalo Wild Wings, Chipotle, Five Guys and more. Milchhoefer Jr. said he's used part of the funds generated — $52,551 so far, according to the Illinois Gaming Board — to reinvest in the village, including opening Tacabron at 7330 Harrison St.
Before the Mexican restaurant opened, he said investors had three locations in mind: Forest Park, Toyota Park and Lyons. Video gaming helped investors decide Forest Park was the place to be, he said.
"It was definitely a very large part of our decision, the fact that it was an option, just in case things went bad," Milchhoefer Jr. said, stressing that he has no intention of adding video games to Tacabron at this time. "But it is also so if we ever want to sell the business, it makes it more attractive to other people, the fact that you can have them."
He's also used the money to hire an additional employee, offer at least one bartender a raise and invest in charitable causes — he recently donated $1,500 to Little League, donated to the Forest Park 4 Puerto Rico fundraiser and gave $500 to a struggling single mom who was the victim of domestic violence.
Before video gaming, "there were times where I had to say no and turn someone away," he said. "Since gaming came I don't think there's been one that I got where I couldn't at least give them something."
Like Watts, Milchhoefer Jr. said he believes Madison Street looks the same as it did before gaming arrived. He also applauded village officials for bringing it slowly to Forest Park, saying they did their research by waiting to see how it affected other locales and outlawing gaming cafes and signage on storefronts.
"Some of the anti's say the terminal operators come in and make all the money, and that's not true," he said. "They make the same amount of money we do, and they split a lot of costs like licensing, advertising with us, and they also have a significant sunk cost because of the machines. … We make the most out of it, the small businesses do and the community."
Jim Buckley, owner of Mugsy's, said it would be devastating if video gaming left 7640 Madison St. "How would you feel if you had to take a cut out of your paycheck?" he asked.
Since gaming has been legal, Mugsy's has pocketed $55,326, according to the Illinois Gaming Board.
Buckley, who compared video gaming to buying a lottery ticket, said he's used the funds to pay bills and plans to renovate his bar soon — he wants to update the garden area, install new flooring, refurbish Mugsy's bathroom and more. He said he's talked to nearby retailers — Starship Restaurant & Catering and My Best Friend Groom & Board pet grooming — and said they haven't experienced a loss in sales because of the practice.
Without gaming, "I would lose a number of different things: renovating the place, paying bills, and just keeping my head above water. Things just get rougher and rougher each year, product goes up, taxes go up, insurance goes up. Instead of raising prices for the people, this comes in and you can keep your prices down."
He added: "We're hoping it can pass" come November.