Will Downers Grove commissioners bet on video gaming?

Downers Grove officials are putting their cards on the table as they voice both support and concerns over a plan to bring video gaming to the village.

Commissioners Oct. 19 held a lengthy discussion regarding the pros and cons of allowing bars, restaurants and breweries to have up to six video gaming terminals. The village council is expected to resume the conversation at its Nov. 2 meeting.

The state’s Video Gaming Act was established in 2009, but Downers Grove has remained one of the few towns in central DuPage County that does not allow the terminals.

But permitting video gaming at facilities that have an on-premise consumption liquor license is a priority action item in the village’s current long-range plan, Village Manager Tom Fieldman told the council.

If approved, the ordinance would allow a business to have up to six terminals if they’ve had a liquor license in good standing for one year. The proposed ordinance prohibits stand-alone gaming cafes, which have garnered no support from commissioners.

The village would charge a one-time $1,885 application fee, and businesses would pay an annual terminal fee of $1,500. The village would cap licenses at 20, and license applications would be reviewed starting Jan. 1 on a first-come, first-serve basis, Fieldman said. Currently, 55 establishments would qualify to apply for a license, he said.

Individuals under 21 would not be permitted to use the terminals, which would be located in a separate part of a bar or restaurant.

Municipalities receive 15% of tax revenue generated by video gaming. The village estimates annual revenue of between $250,000-$500,000, Fieldman said.

Commissioner Danny Glover expressed support for the proposal saying that he understands the disadvantage Downers Grove restaurants face by not having them. He said allowing video gaming would help the village retain existing businesses and attract new ones.

“This sit-back-and-watch and see-what-happens period is over,” Glover said, adding that most of the village’s neighboring communities allow video gaming.

Commissioner Rich Kulovany expressed reservations about bringing video gaming to town, especially in restaurants located in downtown Downers Grove. He said an unintended consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic was growth in outdoor dining on Main Street, which must be protected.

“My concern, particularly downtown, is that video gaming would dramatically change the essence of that downtown,” Kulovany said. “And I’m not sure there’s any parent or grandparent when they’re tucking their kids to bed that say, ‘You know, I really aspire you to be a gambler when you grow up.’”

Kulovany added that signs used to advertise video gaming are “garish and glaring.”

Commissioner Nicole Walus echoed Kulovany’s concerns about video gaming negatively affecting the downtown business district.

“I feel our downtown is special. It has a certain feel. It has a certain vibe,” Walus said. “I have concerns that putting video gaming into our downtown might change that vibe, particularly as it relates to signage. We have a very strict sign ordinance that’s there for a reason.”

Commissioner Chris Gilmartin said he favors video gaming “but that support does not come without reservations and is not unconditional.”

He said he understands that it allows businesses to diversify revenue streams but added that he is opposed to video gaming cafes and the possibility of a bar or restaurant transitioning over time into a cafe.

Mayor Robert Barnett agreed.

“Full disclosure, I think this is not a good idea, but if we’re going to head down the path of how to facilitate gaming in our community, I do think that if the logic is (for gaming) to be a draw for new businesses or to help existing businesses, that the cafe component is something I have even less interest in.”

Resident Tom Schroeder raised several concerns about adding video gaming terminals to Downers Grove eateries.

“No amount of tax money would make it worth it for me to be sitting at one of my favorite restaurants and have all sorts of hooting and hollering going on and gambling talk and watching this and that,” Schroeder said. “I don’t want my 14-year-old son to be around that.”

He asked if using a video gaming terminal would be limited to bar and restaurant patrons or if anyone could walk in, gamble and leave.

“I think that’s going to introduce a whole other level of transients…,” he said.

He added that he did not believe gaming should be used to help support restaurants and bars.

“I’m not in favor of subsidizing a restaurant that’s not surviving on its own,” he said. “A restaurant should stand on its own, and if not, we shouldn’t subsidize it.”

Bryan Bentley, owner of Bryan’s American Grill, 2009 Ogden Ave., offered a completely different take on adding gaming machines to Downers Grove establishments.

“First of all, there is no crime associated with video gaming,” Bentley said. “As far as the transients that were mentioned here, the folks that game are actually your neighbors. They’re your friends, your neighbors and other folks. They’re not people of ill repute. This is not going to affect Downers Grove in a negative way. As a matter of fact, it’s good for Downers Grove.”

He added that by prohibiting video gaming, Downers Grove fails to offer a fair and level playing field for businesses.

“Downers Grove has an opportunity to reach out to its business community and help them,” Bentley said. “My business is not failing, but at the same time it could be doing better. I’ve watched my customer base migrate over to Zazzo’s (Pizza & Bar in Westmont), Freemont (Bar & Grill in Westmont) and other jurisdictions that currently have video gaming.

“This is just one more product that we would get to offer our customers. This would be good for Downers Grove, to enhance the tax base, to be able to take care of our employees a little better. We would be able to reinvest in our businesses. This is not a bad thing. It might not be 100% popular, but it’s the right thing to do.”