Video gaming will now be legal in Geneseo

Beth Welbers
Geneseo Republic
Geneseo Mayor Sean Johnson

With a crowd of more than 50 socially distanced citizens in the High School Concert Hall, the Geneseo City Council voted to allow video gaming in their city, with the Mayor casting the tie breaking vote. Due to the contentiousness of the subject, the Council chose to change the venue to allow the citizens adequate space to participate in the proceedings.

During Public Comments, fourteen of the attending citizens took the microphone to publicly voice their concerns or support of the issue. Of those speaking, five were in favor with nine opposing the measure. City Administrator, Jo Hollenkamp, read an additional twelve letters that had been emailed to her. Of those twelve opposing, one was written by a Geneseo 8th grader who urged the Councilmen to preserve what she felt was important in her home town. Pastor Steven Palm, president of the Geneseo Ministerial Association, presented the Council with a petition signed by 233 people in opposition.

The concerns of many of the opponents of the video gaming proposition included the small amount that would go to the city, out of the much larger figure dropped into the machines, and that those monies might be better spent purchasing goods and services in town. Others expressed concern over the addictive quality of the gaming machines, and the subsequent issues that may follow. Several expressed concerns for the erosion of the “Mayberry- esque” quality of life found in Geneseo.

Bill Smith, president of Bek Oil, who has a truckstop just off I80 and Rt 82 addressed the Council. He stated that when drivers select a stop for the night, often they choose the Loves down the road as opposed to the Beks, because they offer gaming. It is not unusual for a driver with 10 hours off to drop $10 - $15 in a machine as a way to kill time til he is allowed to go back to work. Illinois law allows gaming in truckstops, regardless of local ordinances. Bek's has respected the local rules, but has supported the addition of video gaming.

Mayor Sean Johnson then thanked all the public who voiced their concerns in the open comments portion of the meeting. He then went on to make a few comments about how the last two weeks had played out for him. Numerous people sought him out to express their opinions either in support or opposition of the issue. “A surprising number of 'pillars of the community' expressed support of the measure, but asked for anonymity”. He encouraged tolerance be employed, and to honor everyones feelings on the subject.

All the Councilmen expressed views prior to the final vote. Long term Councilmen Bob Wachtel, (Ward 2), thanked all the members of the public for coming, “I appreciate your passion for our City. Remember that tomorrow we must all live together. We need to keep an open line on fixing things in our community.”

Martin Rothschild (Ward 3) indicated that all people were gifted with free will. Those that don't like it do not have to participate. “We are losing out to communities only a few miles away. Those are the people who game for recreation. Those who have an addiction will go to the boats. We are tasked to find revenue, and with retaining businesses.”

Ward 2's Bob James reminded the Council that he felt the negatives outweighed the positives. “Each $20 spent on the gaming machines is that much less spent on purchases that can be made within the city that helps build jobs. “

Brett Barnhart of Ward 4, stated that he appreciated the involvement of everyone. "I am looking at this not as potential revenue for the city from Video Gaming machine so much as lost revenue to our businesses which are losing customers who are taking their business elsewhere. We are providing the safeguards to ensure that we maintain the picturesque aspect of Geneseo while enabling our business to compete with the surrounding communities. Further, according the the last public referendum, the majority of Geneseo residents were not in favor of prohibiting Video Gaming in Geneseo, so I feel I am honoring the opinion of the majority of our residents."

Paula Simosky (Ward 1) pointed out as the pandemic rounds the corner into it's first year, “ We are all changed. People are no longer comfortable at 100% capacity. Many of these business owners will use these machines to make up the difference of the diminished capacity. Mindsets are different. “

Doug Crow from Ward 4, expressed disappointment. “I fear the State of Illinois is the Cartel, and Geneseo has been invited to join that cartel We need to implement safeguards to avoid gambling halls. Only a matter of time before the gaming cafes drag us into court to contest the ordinance, and that marijuana dispensaries will be the next step.”

Keith Kennett (Ward 3) expressed that “I'm not comfortable opposing the Mayor, and we have a very transparent process here. Many inputs with differing points of view. This vote on gaming is permanent and irrevocable. It is ok for Geneseo to be different.”

Craig Arnold, councilman from Ward 1, made his argument that gaming is a legal activity. “It's a person's choice to do, as long as it is legal. The businesses who chose to add this are trying to be competitive with like businesses in other cities. Business owners are gamblers. Give them the opportunity to make them more competitive, with something absolutely legal.”

The vote was taken, again coming up 4-4, with the Mayor casting a yea vote, as the tie breaker. Before the vote was cast, Mayor Johnson offered some thoughts on the levity with which the decision was made. “ The council that surrounds me deserves great credit for the careful thought, hard work and dedication they gave, helping guide me to rendering my decision in this matter. Those in support gave careful insight into how to do it in a way that protects the things that makes Geneseo Special. Equally important to me as Mayor as I worked towards making a decision were those that were in opposition. Not only they express their opposition and the reason for it, some were able to remain open minded enough to think critically and offered ideas and guidance as to how to once again protect what makes Geneseo Special.” 

City Attorney Margaret Kostopulos of Ancel Glink stated that the firm is assisting the City in drawing up a variety of ordinances to tightly control the video gaming presence in the City. This would include a limited number of gaming licenses available to only establishments with “pour” licenses, strict signage limits, and limits to placement of machines within the businesses. These ordinances should be available for review at the next meeting on March 23.

In other business:

Officer Jamie Shoemaker was introduced to the Council. She is the newest member of the Geneseo force, hired on International Women's Day. She comes from Rock Island County, and is the mother of a 19 year old son.

The Chamber of Commerce was happy to announce that there are 21 scheduled ribbon cuttings for the next year. The Artwalk will return in April, the Music Fest is scheduled for June 18-20, and Trains, Planes and Automobiles will be making a return September 9-11.