Village gets an earful on video gaming
Idea of lifting ban pits ministerial alliance, local business owners
MAHOMET — Mahomet's leaders asked for input from residents on repealing the ban on video gaming — and they're getting it.
A crowd of about 30 turned out for this week's village board meeting, with the majority urging trustees to keep the ban in place. Members of Mahomet's ministerial alliance presented trustees with petitions signed by members of the community.
They cite concerns about quality of life in the community, as well as qualms about the impact of gambling on children and families.
"We don't want to make money off people in the community losing theirs," Mahomet resident Barbara Johnson said.
The village board originally opted out of the Illinois Video Gaming Act in 2009, making installation of gaming terminals illegal within village limits.
The act permits video gaming terminals in bars and restaurants where liquor is served, as well as veterans' and fraternal halls and truck stops. There are 134 such machines in Champaign alone, and they're doing increasingly bigger business. In 2014, players are on pace to lose $6 million playing games like video poker and slots at Champaign establishments.
Mahomet Village President Patrick Brown said that at the time the opt-out ordinance was passed, trustees agreed to revisit the issue "once the state had everything in a row." Last month, owners of JT Walker's and The Wingery asked the board to consider reopening the matter for discussion.
Brown emphasized that trustees shouldn't make a decision based on possible revenue for the village. Under the gaming act, municipalities are entitled to 5 percent of the machines' tax revenue.
According to data compiled by Village Administrator Mell Smigielski, if the two establishments that have shown interest in the machines move forward with plans, license fees as well as the village's cut of profits wouldn't far exceed $2,000 — an amount that Brown said was "not a consideration."
John Kindt, a Mahomet resident and professor emeritus from the University of Illinois' College of Business, opposes legalizing video gaming.
"This is going to change the entire tenor of the community," he said, adding that the machines are considered "the crack cocaine of creating new addicted gamblers."
Kindt, whose research focuses on the social and economic impact of gambling, is a longtime critic of the industry and was involved in the federal government's 1996 National Gambling Impact Study Commission.
He cited statistics showing that crime can go up as much as 10 percent a year in the vicinity of gambling facilities, as well as sparking an increase in bankruptcies.
"Just because it's been made legal in Springfield doesn't mean it's the right thing to do," he said.
Justin Taylor of JT Walker's says that video gambling would bring another source of revenue to his restaurant at a time when costs are going up for business owners — and when a sharp hike in the minimum wage could, if passed, apply even more pressure.
He said the decision about whether to gamble should be an individual one.
"It's a question of personal choice over a moral question," he said, adding, "There are video games within minutes of Mahomet."
Champaign resident Tom Fiedler, owner of Melody Gaming and a former president of the Illinois Coin Machine Operators Association, argued that allowing the machines would help businesses while not significantly affecting quality of life.
"This is a residential community, but it's also a business community," he said.
Bobby Slade, former owner of Mahomet restaurant Hideaway of the Woods, said gaming machines could help business owners surmount the narrow margin between success and failure.
"I do not believe in my heart that a few businesses (with legal gaming) are going to corrupt this community," he said.
Trustees said they were grateful for community input, and indicated they are in no hurry to schedule a vote.
"I don't think we're done getting feedback," Brown said.
Amelia Benner is editor of the Mahomet Citizen, a News-Gazette community newspaper. For more, visit mcitizen.com.