Geneseo council narrowly approves gaming

Beth Welbers
Geneseo Republic
A slot machine in a casino.

At the Tuesday February 23 meeting of the Geneseo City Council, discussion regarding allowing a limited number of video gaming licenses drew the attention and ire of numerous local residents.  

During public comments, eleven residents rang in with their opinions regarding whether Geneseo could remain the quaint but progressive city they all loved, with the addition of video gaming.  Many more came to support their neighbors. 

Zack Sullivan did an unofficial poll of local businesses, most of which favored the addition of gaming to those establishments that would qualify.  

Former councilman, Jason Robinson referred to the return on gaming as "expensive free money" citing the loss of some of the wholesomeness of the city if allowed.

Gary Joyner stated that even though it is a legal pastime, does not make it a moral pastime. 

Chris Lehman of Lehman's Bar & Grill, stated that Kewanee has realized $900,000 since making gaming legal.  He would like to have it in Geneseo so that customers who do game can stay in town, eat and drink in his establishment, as opposed to go outside of the city. 

The video gaming issue has come up at least twice before in the years since it became legal in Illinois. A 2012 referendum passed gaming by a slight margin, when the revenues were earmarked for police protection.  The council did not approve the action at that time. 

Vigorous discussion of the matter commenced.  Martin Rothschild (3rd Ward) stated that he was in favor of the change.  "How much business is lost to other communities?  It's everywhere.  This is an opportunity to regain lost revenues.  People so inclined can go out, have a burger and a beer, entertain themselves at a video machine."

Bob Wachtel (1st Ward) responded that he felt the Council was not ready to vote on it until the points of which kind of businesses would be allowed machines, and the signage that goes with it were addressed. "Moline regrets the passage of gaming, due to all the problems with signage."

Brett Barnhart (4th Ward ) brought up a variety of suggestions to limit the gaming licenses, including restructuring the number of additional licenses and limiting the number of machines an establishment has. 

Keith Kennett (3rd Ward) went on the record that he had voted against gaming twice before, and planned to do so again. "180 other municipalities in Illinois voted not to allow gaming, so Geneseo is not alone. There is no argument for it, outside of the financial aspect."

"There’s significant value to Geneseo offering an alternative to other communities.  One of our strengths is our commitment to being a family friendly community.  Video gambling doesn’t reinforce that image and commitment.  We’re already at a disadvantage in attracting new residents to Geneseo because we’re in Illinois. The alternative and primary competition of Iowa is only 20 minutes away." pointed out Kennett.

An observation was made by Paula Simosky (1st Ward) who has been doing taxes in Geneseo for years. " I must do 500 returns a year for people in this town.  Of those, probably no more than 20 report anything to do with gambling on them.  Most people will use good sense.  What is the difference between this and lottery tickets?"

First Ward's Craig Arnold warned the rest of his peers, "We need to change and get competitive. We need to listen to and respond to our constituents. And above all, this town has to evolve."

The observation that fraternal organizations that serve food, like the Moose or the American Legion often see spikes in business with the addition of video gaming was also made. 

Mayor Sean Johnson cautioned the Council, "Try to remember that what is not important to you may be important to someone else."

The decision was made to bring it back to the Council at the March 9 meeting, once the city attorney at Ancel Glink has had an opportunity to research the kinds of restrictions that would go along with the gaming licenses.  Limitations based on percentage of food and beverage sales are proposed.  Historic downtown regulations will preclude much of the more onerous signage, but outside of that, regulation of the signage must occur. 

The issue then went to a vote, with the Council evenly split.  All eyes turned to the Mayor to cast the deciding vote.  In a prepared statement, the Mayor explained his vote. "The decision I am faced with comes down to the premise what is best for Geneseo?.  The decision I am left, the decision I am about to make does not come lightly. I cannot begin to explain the amount of thought and discussion with others I have given to this matter."

"Considering all things. I feel as though the ordinance before us satisfies the concerns and regulates gaming for those that are in opposition while allowing the activity and revenues available for those in support.  And it is for all these reason that I vote yes."  The measure of video gaming then passed 4-5 in favor.