DECATUR — Brad Tucker has never been more pleased to see new faces walk into Woody’s, especially when they head right to the video poker machines and help more than double the bar’s revenue.
What years ago was a novel concept has become prevalent throughout Decatur since the first machine went online in October 2012.
As of September, 25 Decatur businesses have received video poker licenses, with a total of 106 machines online. According to September numbers provided by the Illinois Gaming Board, $1,925,317 was played on the machines. That’s down from the $1,943,170 played in 91 machines across 21 businesses during August, but up from $1,784,581 played in July at 90 machines in 21 businesses. After payouts to winners, the machines brought in $530,390.60 for September, more than the $511,943.88 from August.
No other bar in Decatur has seen the success from the machines as much as Woody’s, which reported $201,622 played at its five machines in September. The revenue has allowed them to begin installing a new kitchen and maintain the rest of the business, said Tucker, manager of Woody’s.
“We’ve about doubled or tripled our revenues since we got the machines (in the spring),” Tucker said. “We’re seeing new faces come in every day to check them out, as well as retaining other customers.”
Not all of the profits from the state-run operation go to the businesses, as Illinois receives 25 percent of earnings, while the municipalities can get 5 percent of net income after winnings. The business owners and operators split the rest. The state will use its share of the money to help fund a $31 billion construction program to fix schools, roads and other transportation projects, while municipalities are free to spend the money as they please.
According to the board’s monthly report, Decatur’s share of September earnings was $26,519.55, up from $25,597.23 brought in during August. Since the arrival of the machines, Decatur has received $193,654.55. The city has brought in at least $20,000 a month since March.
The revenue goes into the city’s general operating fund, which pays for most city expenses. The city hasn’t earmarked the money for any particular project because of the uncertainty surrounding how much will be brought in, said Gregg Zientara, the city’s director of financial management.
“Quite frankly… how does one predict how much the consumers are going to spend on video gaming?” he said. “It’s basically a new tax revenue stream created by the state. I think it was unknown everywhere in the state what the impact would be.”
Recent monthly revenues in the mid $20,000 has given the city a better indicator of the short-term expectations for the machines, but Zientara said he was curious about the longer-term dynamic of video poker earnings and whether the poor economy drove residents to machines.
“When does the consumer decide to spend their expendable income on video gaming?” Zientara asked. “At this point, we don’t have the answer.”
For such businesses as Feeling Lucky Lounge, its five poker machines have helped fuel a renaissance. The former Elbow Room underwent a renovation and a name-change, which owner Diana Binkley said was directly due to the video poker machines.
“They have been a great asset for us,” she said. The revenue has led to more food specials in hopes of drawing more clientele, as well as increased salaries for several employees.
“We really do appreciate it. I appreciate the extra revenue,” she said
While some have used the machine as part of a renovation, others see them as just some “free money” to help pay the bills.
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When McGorray’s Golf & Grille had its machines turned on nearly a year ago, General Manager Brian Becker hoped the attraction would draw new customers to the restaurant for food and beverages.
Instead, Becker said, the machines have had little impact on the rest of the business.
“It’s really more ‘bam bam.’ They come in to play machines then leave,” he said, adding that many of the gamblers he talked to say they travel to the different businesses around town to find the “hottest machines” in Decatur.
The amount of play varies between businesses, with some seeing less than $20,000 played a month. Others, such as Feeling Lucky, saw $144,322 played in September, with a total terminal income of $39,253.55.
The quantity of machines in the area is unlikely to slow down any time soon, as the Gaming Board lists 18 Decatur establishments, ranging from bars, restaurants and union halls, awaiting license approval. Only one Decatur business has been denied a license request.
Some opponents to the machines have criticized the flashy nature of the machines, saying they draw lower-income residents who don’t have disposable income. Additionally, the location of the machines in bars opens gamblers to possible alcohol abuse.
While he has not noticed an increase in gambling addiction cases, Chuck Kerwin, an alcohol and drug counselor who deals with gambling addictions at St. Mary’s Treatment Center, said many people may not seek treatment if they don’t think they have a problem or may be hesitant if their insurance does not cover process addictions, such as video gaming.
With the bright flashing lights and presentation that stimulates the brain and “fantasy thinking” in which a gambler thinks he’s one roll away from big winnings, Kerwin said, it can lead to massive financial and personal damage.
“Some of these people… my God, they go through a lot of money, and it’s not your rich people but your average Joes who take out cash advances and money on their credit card,” Kerwin said. “They suffer a lot.”
So far, the video gaming revenue projections for Decatur seem far more optimistic than for the state.
The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, which provides fiscal forecasts for the General Assembly, says the yearly tally will be in the $100 million to $200 million range, down from the $375 million in revenue initially projected. Existing laws in municipalities such as Chicago, where video gambling is still illegal, led to the lowered expectations.
But for people like Tucker, he hopes Woody’s is able to keep riding the hot hand to more profits.
“It’s not hurting our pockets if people win, so we hope more and more people come in and win here,” he said.