DECATUR -- As city officials cast their votes in 2012 to allow state-approved video gaming in Decatur, then-Councilwoman Julie Moore Wolfe said the hope was that it would help tavern owners make some extra money.

Four years and hundreds of video gaming machines later, Mayor Moore Wolfe and others said they were not prepared for just how big of business the machines would become.

Not only has nearly every bar and restaurant in the city limits added video gaming to their menu, but dozens of "gambling parlors" have popped up in the city, catering specifically to those who wish to cut out all the frills that could get in the way of them hitting jackpot.

“I didn’t believe any of us on the council had any idea that we would have the number of establishments we do now with gaming machines,” Moore Wolfe said. “We were trying to help the restaurants, taverns and locally-owned restaurants survive.”

There were 74 establishments with a total of 351 machines in the Decatur area as of May, with nearly $7.7 million played in those machines during that time, according to numbers from the Illinois Gaming Board. Only Springfield and Rockford have more machines than Decatur in Illinois, though both have significantly fewer machines per capita than Decatur.

Over the first five months of the year, $38,782,867 was played, with a net terminal income of $9,731,899. Of that income, $2,432,987 went to the state and another $486,596 went to the municipality.

And while cities such as Springfield have seen their number of establishments with video poker machines peak and begin to taper off, there seems to be no end in sight for Decatur.

The 351 machines at 74 establishments in May was up from 229 machines at 49 establishments this time last year. In the past five months, the city has seen 57 more terminals start up at 12 new establishments.

“I kept thinking we’ve finally hit our peak,” said Decatur Councilman Jerry Dawson, who is also the city's liquor commissioner. “But then more license applicants come in.”

A lot of the new applicants aim for a Class P liquor license, which the council specifically created in 2015 for video gaming parlors. Before then, Dawson said parlors were abusing the Class G licenses that are meant for restaurants.

The number of Class G licenses issued are now more than 30, with new parlors popping up seemingly every week in the city.

But with how much money they’re bringing in, it’s not too much of a surprise more parlors arrive.

Of the 10 establishments that have seen the most played machines in Decatur, eight of them have been gaming parlors. The other two are Pilot Travel Center, a truck stop that has had $859,653 played on its five machines this year, and Godfather's Pizza, where customers have played $798,792 at its five machines this year.

The parlors generally serve meals and light snacks for breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with drinks such as beer, wine and coffee. They advertise themselves as a place that provides a relaxing experience that caters to older customers and nearby residents.

But some local ministers and council members have expressed concerns about the establishments, from their locations in the inner city to the fact nearly all of them are operated by out-of-town companies.

Those include Dotty’s, a Las Vegas-based company whose three Decatur locations are operated by a limited-liability corporation based in Springfield.

The three Decatur locations, which are among hundreds in Illinois, Nevada, Montana and Oregon, have had $2.84 million played at them so far this year.

Others that are among the 10 busiest in Decatur include three Ruby's locations, where $3.69 million have been played so far this year. It is operated by a company based in Edwardsville and has other locations in the Champaign area.

That so much money from the machines goes out of town is something that bothers Moore Wolfe.

“I hate to see money from Decatur going out to someone who is just coming in here to make a profit on our people,” she said.

Legally, the city is limited on restricting the locations of parlors, and Dawson added it would be unfair to restrict businesses that have already invested their own money in setting up shop.

A bright side that officials find is that the parlors do help fill up vacancies in strip malls and potentially bring customers to neighboring businesses.

The council is set to hold a study session Monday that will focus solely on video gaming machines and what direction the city should take, if any, to change the gaming landscape.

Moore Wolfe said she and council members will use the time to listen to community members about their own thoughts on gaming.

Ideas such imposing higher fees on the machines or limiting the number of liquor licenses given to the parlor-type establishments have been floated in recent months, though no action on these items will be taken Monday.

It remains to be seen just what direction the council will go, but Moore Wolfe said she wishes things had gone differently during that initial vote four years ago.

“If we had known what it had become, we would have put limits in for businesses,” she said, noting Danville’s clause that more than half of the revenue for a business with machines much come from food and beverage. “We just didn’t see this happening.

"Nobody said, ‘By the way, you can just about open one of these places on every street corner.”

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Staff Writer

Government-watchdog reporter for the Herald & Review.

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