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updated: 6/20/2014 1:02 PM

Veterans groups turn to video gambling to survive

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  • Video: Video gambling in Huntley

  • Faced with declining membership, American Legion halls, such as this one in Huntley, are betting on their survival through installation of video gambling machines.

       Faced with declining membership, American Legion halls, such as this one in Huntley, are betting on their survival through installation of video gambling machines.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Faced with declining membership, some American Legion halls have pegged their survival on getting video gambling machines.

       Faced with declining membership, some American Legion halls have pegged their survival on getting video gambling machines.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Huntley Legionnaire Mike Stojak says video gambling is "one thing that is going to help us keep our doors open."

       Huntley Legionnaire Mike Stojak says video gambling is "one thing that is going to help us keep our doors open."
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • American Legion halls are hoping revenue from video gambling machines will offset declining membership.

       American Legion halls are hoping revenue from video gambling machines will offset declining membership.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 

Faced with declining membership and lack of new blood, some veterans' organizations are pegging their survival on video gambling.

A few, particularly those that installed the machines right after they were legalized in Illinois, are seeing profits.

"It was a salvation," said Bill Geary, adjutant and corporate secretary of Wauconda American Legion Post 911, which installed the maximum-allowed five machines in February 2013. "We were running in the red for five years or so because of the high price of utilities and everything else. Now, we're running in the black again, so we're good." The post takes in nearly $15,000 a month.

"We're doing great," Geary said. "We open early and we close late, and people like it here. It is everything (we) hoped for and more."

That's helped pay for a new roof for the more than 60-year-old building. Legionnaires plan to repave the parking lot, remodel aging bathrooms and fix maintenance problems -- as long as the money keeps coming.

But the verdict is out on many veterans clubs. Some have had machines only for a few months, and others are awaiting the machines after delays with the state's processing of licenses and ongoing fights against municipal and county bans.

Bureaucratic delays

Obtaining a video gambling license was a two-year ordeal for Huntley American Legion Post 673, which just got its machines in February.

"We had a lot of trouble getting them because we were a social club and at the time we applied they told us social clubs weren't allowed," said Mike Stojak, post finance officer.

Legion officials reapplied after state lawmakers allowed video gambling at bars, restaurants, truck stops and fraternal organizations in October 2012. But it meant going to the back of the line, Stojak said.

Despite the delays, officials couldn't be happier looking at the bottom line. "We made $700 in our first two days, just profit," Stojak said.

The legion made about $15,000 the past three months.

"There are so many legion posts with bars and restaurants around the area that are struggling to make ends meet," Stojak said. "The video gaming, that's one thing that is going to help us keep our doors open."

Sun City-Huntley retirement community residents make up a large portion of the legion gamblers.

"We adjusted our hours. We used to open at 3 p.m. and now we open at 11 a.m.," Stojak said. "We've got a little bit of an additional cost, but the games are going to more than make up for that."

Officials spent $2,000 on a new floor and upgraded electric wiring in the 58-year-old building. Video gambling revenues mostly will go toward fixing up the legion hall, including upgrading its kitchen and bathrooms.

American Legion Elgin Post 57 is expecting its machines to arrive this month after licensing delays.

In an unusual twist, one problem was the inability of the state to fingerprint 85-year-old Donald Sleeman, post adjutant.

"It took the state of Illinois about a year and two months to let us know that my fingerprints didn't take, so they did a retake," he said. "And the reason is, I have no fingerprints. They wore off. There are no swirls on any of my fingers."

But Sleeman is not sure video gambling alone is enough to keep veterans' organizations from dying out.

"Those machines would help, but they are not the salvation," he said, noting competition from the nearby Grand Victoria Casino and bingo hall at The Milk Pail Restaurant in East Dundee have hurt the Legion post -- as has stepped-up enforcement of DUI laws.

"People don't go to the bars as much as they used to," he said.

Novelty wears off

Not everyone is swimming in profits.

Two years ago, representatives from the Carpentersville VFW and other establishments lobbied the village board to lift its ban on video gambling, saying it would be key to keeping its doors open.

The board relented, and last fall the VFW put in five machines -- but they were delivered eight months after the nearby Carpentersville Moose Lodge Post 1958 received its machines, said Chuck Slack, the VFW's treasurer.

By the time the VFW was fully stocked, the novelty had already worn off.

"We were losing customers because they were going where the gambling was," Slack said.

The Carpentersville VFW also is a closed club, which means the only people with access to the machines are the 120 members from the VFW and another 100 members from its ladies auxiliary.

That's not enough people for five machines, so three were removed in the past month, Slack said. The club has gone from generating a monthly average of $900 to just $29 last month.

What the VFW really needs are newer, younger members, said Slack, 79, a Korean War veteran.

For now, officials have other activities that barely keep the club open, but they have not figured out how they will respond to the lack of profits from video gambling.

"We're still hanging in there," Slack said. "I don't know what'll happen if they take those two other machines out."

It's only a matter of time before the newness of video gambling wears off as more establishments get the machines, said Ronnie Moon, president of the Elk Grove Village Veteran's Club 9284.

The club has had three machines for a month and customers have been playing daily, he said.

"We're not thrilled, but we're doing OK," said Moon, 70, a Vietnam War veteran. If business grows, club leaders may opt for the five machines allowed by law.

Still, keeping afloat is a challenge. "We needed something to keep the club going," Moon said, "because the membership is dwindling."

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