After a slow start, video gambling growing fast
On Carole Mack's first visit to The Assembly American Bar and Café in Hoffman Estates, she moved from one video gambling machine to the other, looking for a lucky one and keeping a glass of wine next to the machine while she played.
Mack would put a $20 bill into the machine and play different games -- trying to match up numbers, fruits, or animals. She bet a few cents or a few dollars each time, and occasionally, the machine spit out some winnings.
That Mack could gamble in the suburbs without going to a casino is relatively new.
Six months after video gambling operations began in earnest, the number of machines is rising sharply as regulators approve hundreds of new ones across the Illinois each month. Revenue for the state also is up, to $3.4 million in February compared to $2.4 million in January and just $22,607 in September.
The machines now dot the suburban map, popping up five or so at a time in bars and restaurants and bringing gambling closer to home for a lot of residents.
"I was shocked when I found out, but it's great I don't have to drive to the big casinos," said Mack, of Barrington.
Video gambling machines were authorized by lawmakers in 2009 to pay for a massive road and bridge construction plan across the state, but regulators didn't approve them for play until last year.
The machines have tended to take off more quickly downstate as many suburbs have grappled with whether to allow local bars to have them at all. If towns give the OK, five are allowed in an establishment with a liquor license.
Applications are pending that could more than triple the number of machines, according to the Illinois Gaming Board. And new applications keep coming in, so video gambling will continue to grow locally in the coming years.
Applications have "slowed down a little bit, but we get them all the time," Illinois Gaming Board spokesman Gene O'Shea said.
That's great news for bar and restaurant owners who see the gambling machines as a way to supplement their revenues in a tough economy. But it's a big concern for people who argue that making gambling more accessible to people is a way to foster addiction.
"They go out for pizza. They go out for bowling. They go out for dinner," said Anita Bedell, director of Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems. "And there are the machines."
She argued that with Illinois video gambling in its infancy, communities don't know the full effects yet.
"It's expanding so fast before people know what's happening," she said.
At The Assembly American Bar and Café, there's a room with five video gambling machines and chairs when you walk into the restaurant, but it's separate from the bar and eating area. There are signs posted that you have to be at least 21 to enter.
Mack says her visits are "just for fun. If I can break even, then it's OK."
The state and bar owners hope to more than break even.
Money the state gets from video gambling goes to pay for a five-year construction program that began in 2009 and ends soon. Vehicle fee increases and higher alcohol taxes are also paying for the construction work. Gov. Pat Quinn last week touted the capital works project, which is one of the cornerstone accomplishments of his time in office.
Individual suburbs get a small cut of the gambling proceeds. The city of McHenry, for example, got $6,100 in February, even though it has more machines than most suburbs, at 40.
Restaurant owners do a little better.
Anthony Patti, owner of Rosati's of Lakemoor, said the business had been struggling financially, racking up losses in some months. Video gambling has eased the financial stress.
"It helped bring in extra revenue," he said. "It's a struggle making it in today's economy. It's gone a long way to buoy our bottom line."
It also has kept him from having to lay off employees or cut their hours.
"Now with the gaming, I kept all my employees on and I was able to give them a slight raise, which they deserved," he said.
Patti was among the first Illinois business owners to be granted a license for video gambling. His converted office opened in October as a gambling area with five machines. Figures compiled by the Illinois Gaming Board showed that in February $266,259 was wagered and $245,440 paid out at Patti's place.
The business and Morris Gaming, the licensed machine operator, split about $14,000, and the village received $1,116. The rest goes to the state.
Sometimes, the machines are so busy that it's hard for gamblers to find a spot to play.
Ken Kramer of Palatine said it was his first time at The Assembly last week, but after waiting for a while for a machine to free up, he left.
"I'd love to see more of these open up closer to home," Kramer said. "I usually go for more traditional gambling, but it's something fun to do."
• Daily Herald staff writer Mick Zawislak contributed to this report.