Tom Kacich: High-grossing gaming joint isn't what you'd expect
Drive or walk past Lacey's Place, across from the Market Place Mall in north Champaign, and you would never believe what is going on there. The name certainly isn't a clue.
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Inside this small, nondescript strip mall storefront is a business that last month recorded more than a million dollars in revenue. All of it came from five video gaming terminals that each grossed an average of about $210,000, or about $375 for each hour that Lacey's Place was open in May.
Lacey's did far more business last month than any other video gambling establishment in Champaign County, even more than the Road Ranger truck stop up the road off of Interstate 57, where the four video terminals are available 24 hours a day. Lacey's recorded $1.04 million played last month, to the $750,521 at the Road Ranger, $743,826 for Jupiter's at the Crossing in Champaign, $696,876 at Bunny's in Urbana, and $570,480 at a Rantoul Super Pantry.
In Vermilion County, the largest gross was at Turtle Run Golf Club in Danville, which had $676,405 played in May.
Lacey's Place is as different from those places and most of the others as Las Vegas is from Champaign.
More like the nail salon next door, Lacey's is cool, clean, quiet and overwhelmingly female, at least it was on the three occasions I was there last week.
Julia Gibson, whose friendly face greets you at the door six hours a day at Lacey's, says men play the slots and video poker games there as well. But you can see why it appeals to women.
"The atmosphere is mainly the thing," Gibson said. "When you walk in we have beautiful, soothing colors. We have nice music playing. We offer you free pop, free water, free juice, free chips. And you have five of the loosest machines — that's my opinion — in Champaign."
Canned beer is available, as well as prepackaged sandwiches. But no one would confuse Lacey's for a bar. Owner Steve Zhao of Springfield didn't return phone calls seeking comment, but his business model seems to be finding success all over Illinois at boutique gambling establishments with names like Lucy's Place, Stella's, Stacy's Cafe and Marilyn's Downtown Lounge.
Gurldine Burks of Champaign said she plays "every day" at Lacey's, sometimes for as long as eight to nine hours after her shift at Plastic Container Corp. in Urbana.
"I come here after work, and if I'm not working I come here. I don't party or anything like that so this is what I do for fun," she said. "Because it's comfortable. You don't have anybody breathing down your neck. You don't have to deal with the outside crowds, the drunks and all that. You come in here, the workers treat you nice. The boss treats you nice. And the people that you're around all the time, we're just ... having a lot of fun."
Lachia Bennett, also of Champaign, said she plays at Lacey's twice a week.
"It's very calm. You don't have to worry about drunk people. And the music they play is nice, as opposed to the loudness," she said.
Even the male patrons, like Ronnie Robinson and Joseph Primm, both of Champaign, cited the non-Vegaslike atmosphere.
"I come here and I go to the bowling alley sometimes but I mostly come here," said Robinson, who has his own lawn service and maintenance business. "It's a nice environment, a nice place to relax and play your games."
"I probably come here every other day," said Primm, who works at Carle Foundation Hospital. "It's quieter than a bar. And I'm not really a drinker, but if you want a casual drink, you can have that. But you don't have to worry about all the riffraff."
The success of Lacey's — and the 16,874 other video gaming terminals now operating in Illinois — probably dooms the possibility of expanded casino gambling in Illinois, such as the proposed casino in Danville. As video gaming has grown — from the $301 million wagered in Illinois in May 2013 to the $683 million wagered last month — the state's 10 casinos are taking in less money. In May, their adjusted gross receipts were $129.6 million, down 6 percent from $137.8 million in May 2013.
Burks said she used to drive to the Par-A-Dice casino in East Peoria every weekend.
"I think this is pulling a lot of the crowd away from the casinos," she said. "So I'd go over there and lose $500 or $600 and don't win nothing. I come here (Lacey's) this morning and stuck 10 dollars in the machine and I've won $590. You don't do that every day, but you might hit 80, 90, 100, here and there. It just keeps you playing.
"In the big casino, if you don't hit right off it'll wipe you out. Then you drive all the way back mad."
Asked if she would go to a casino in Danville, Bennett said, "I'd play here still. A casino would be too much. That's not my cup of tea. You wouldn't get the soothingness and the attention from the staff."
A casino wouldn't be attractive, she said, "not when you have places like this. What do you need to go all the way to a casino and be almost rubbing up against somebody extra close. Who needs that?"
The men agreed.
"If they opened one in Danville I might go there once, but this here in town. If I can make money here, I'm going to do it and stay here," Primm said.
Top Illinois municipalities for video gaming (See here for a more detailed chart for area towns.)
CommunityAmount playedTerminals1. Rockford$24.327 million3682. Springfield$22.722 million4053. Bloomington$12.886 million1954. Decatur $12.442 million1905. Loves Park $11.501 million2056. Waukegan $10.661 million1367. Champaign $8.531 million1488. Joliet $8.105 million2299. Oak Lawn $7.483 million13810. Sangamon County $6.319 million121 Other area communities Mattoon$3.850 million98Danville$3.039 million74Urbana$2.910 million40Vermilion County$2.154 million55Rantoul$1.816 million42Charleston$1.777 million5Tuscola$1.172 million20Champaign County $1.125 million14Paris $1.118 million28Westville $1.107 million25Monticello $1.053 million20Gilman$960,57730Shelbyville$923,92228Clinton$825,53828Watseka$614,61317Gibson City$611,18822Savoy$569,96413Tolono$577,99917Hoopeston$439,61514St. Joseph$348,8028Paxton$337,7959Gifford$331,8587Philo$330,0849Villa Grove$327,12412Ivesdale$300,7259
NOTE: Video gambling is not allowed in Chicago or Naperville, two of the largest communities in the state
Source: May 2014 report by Illinois Gaming Board
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sunday and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.