Binding referendum may keep video gambling out of Forest Park

By Jean Lotus Staff reporter
Forest Park bar-owner Dennis Miller makes the case for allowing video gambling in Forest Park at a citizen-organized forum June 21. (Photo courtesy Forest Park Town Hall Facebook page)

Forest Park bar-owner Dennis Miller makes the case for allowing video gambling in Forest Park at a citizen-organized forum June 21. (Photo courtesy Forest Park Town Hall Facebook page)

A citizen’s movement in the Village of Forest Park aims to settle the question of whether video gambling should be allowed in the village once and for all. Local residents have launched a petition effort to get a binding referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot. Last week, 60 people attended a citizen-led business forum on the effects of video gambling.

It feels like déjà vu for some village residents, who voted on the subject in an April,2013 non-binding referendum. Voters in 2013 cast ballots two-to-one against video gambling.

But Illinois towns are on the lookout for sources of new revenue. Last winter, video gambling and its promises of quick cash came up in the village council. In a May memo, Forest Park’s village administrator suggested that 49 liquor license holders could install up to five machines each. A maximum of 245 machines in the 1.5 sq. mile village could possibly rake in up to $754 per quarter per machine for the village, the report said. The machines might generate more than $700,000 per year, which could help pay down police and fire pensions, the report said.

In Illinois, the video gambling pay-out split is 35 percent to the game operators, 35 percent to the bar owners, 25 percent to the state of Illinois and five percent to the municipality. Local critics have pointed out that for the village to earn $700,000, local gamblers would need to have lost $14 million.

As uncertainty heated up, some anti-video gambling residents quickly created lawn signs. A group called “Say Yes to a Vote” has started a petition drive to get a binding referendum on the ballot.

According to rules set forth in the Illinois Gaming Act, signatures must be collected of at least 25 percent of Forest Park’s 8,800 registered voters, (2,200) to be submitted to the village clerk 90 days before the general election (the beginning of August). A longtime local Realtor is heading the campaign, which will collect signatures door to door and at several public locations.

On June 21, curious residents and bar owners gathered in the lower level of the Historical Society of Forest Park to listen to local residents discuss pros and cons of video gambling. The panel was organized by former Village Commissioner Chris Harris, who hosted online discussions about video gambling in 2013.

On the panel were two Madison Street business owners, Matt Brown of the Brown Cow Ice Cream shop and Dennis Miller, co-owner of Fat Duck bar and grill, as well as two Forest Park citizens, for and against.

Former Village Commissioner Marty Tellalian, participating as a citizen, complained that the strict state gaming regulations left municipalities too little room to compromise or tweak video gambling for local tastes.

“The amount of money that video gaming [involves] brings in the potential for it to change the nature of our village,” Tellalian said. “That’s not what we want in Forest Park. Ultimately I think it’s too big of a risk,” he said.

But Miller said video gambling was a lifeline to struggling bar owners, and not having the games was making Forest Park bars uncompetitive.

“The fact we don’t have gaming is hurting our businesses,” Miller said. He said competition in other towns was drawing patrons away. “They have been in Berwyn playing the games,” he said. He referred to the economic contributions of the village’s liquor license holders as the village’s “lifeblood.”

“It’s a huge, huge, huge part of the community and we’re getting hurt,” Miller said.

But Brown pointed out that Madison Street had evolved from its history as a row of bars.

“Is video gambling good for the bars? Sure. It’s good, it’s cheap it’s easy money. Does the village get some of it? Sure. But what does it do to the other businesses around it? A lot of work has gone into Madison Street in this town,” Brown said. He said while he didn’t mind gambling personally he did not like the appearance of signage for video poker machines.

Forest Park resident Andrew “A, J,” Johnson said towns in Illinois were learning to craft compromises including limiting the size and character of signage, restricting gambling machines to establishments with more than 50 percent of their sales in food and limiting space for machines. Johnson rattled off other towns that had tweaked their video gambling ordinances. Johnson complained the in the 2013 off-season election, only around 950 people had voted to keep video gambling out of Forest Park.

But residents pointed out the village attorney had already said the council could not restrict the content of signage, and if the village decided to ban neon gambling signs, then all neon signs would have to come down. Residents also said they worried the video gambling operators had deep pockets and powerful attorneys that could challenge any restrictions. They also predicted empty storefronts on Madison Street would be harder to fill with video gambling next door. Almost everyone agreed that convenience gambling parlors such as Dotty’s or Betty’s would be unwelcome in Forest Park.

“We shouldn’t have them, I think they’re sleazy,” Miller said.

But Johnson said acknowledging the presence of Madison Street bars was crucial.

“We drink. [Forest Park] is a town of bars. [Ask] anyone who’s been to St. Pats parade,” he said. Johnson said video gambling could turn the bars into an economic engine could help the town.

“We can earmark those revenues,” Jpohnson said. “We can earmark with special licenses we can absolutely demand that our city council works for everybody.”

Meanwhile, Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone said in an emailed statement that the village would hold an official video gambling forum in July in Forest Park.


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