In McHenry Co. gambling ban debate, public takes sides

Bar, restaurant owners plead for repeal as opponents tell County Board to stand ground

County Board Chairwoman Tina Hill.
County Board Chairwoman Tina Hill.

WOODSTOCK – Rural bar and restaurant owners pleaded with the McHenry County Board to overturn its ban on video gambling.

Opponents pleaded with County Board members to stand their ground.

County Board members heard almost 90 minutes of public comment Tuesday evening, split between bar and restaurant owners wanting the ban repealed, and opponents saying that expanding gambling is a sucker's bet.

In the end, the County Board sided with supporters and voted, 15-9, to end the ban.

Businesses began pushing earlier this year for the County Board to repeal its 2009 ban, alleging that it is hurting their revenues because many McHenry County municipalities now allow video gambling.

Fred Hoffmann, owner of The Snuggery outside of McHenry, was one of several business owners who said that the ban is putting rural liquor establishments at a competitive disadvantage.

"I've been approached by dozens of customers asking why we don't have it, and I don't know what to tell them. They find it hard to believe that they can go two blocks down the street in McHenry and enjoy it there," Hoffmann said.

But opponents said that gambling carries too high a cost to families and society. Crystal Lake resident Carrie Smith, who has watched her brother battle a gambling addiction, called putting the machines in rural bars and restaurants "an unnecessary and unhelpful temptation."

"It's destroyed his marriage, his children, his future, and he's about to lose his house," Smith said.

Supporters outnumbered opponents by two to one, with 18 speaking in favor of a repeal and nine wanting the ban to stay in place.

The County Board in December 2009 enacted a ban on a 13-10 vote, shortly after the General Assembly approved video gambling in establishments that serve alcohol to help pay for a $30 billion capital plan.

But it was not until last fall that the machines started going live in establishments. Since then, rural business owners allege, their establishments have been suffering while establishments with the machines have fared better.

Municipalities that allow video gambling include Algonquin, Huntley, Marengo, Harvard, McHenry, Richmond, Hebron, Johnsburg, McCullom Lake, Fox River Grove, Lake in the Hills, Spring Grove, Ringwood and Woodstock.

"I don't see it as a silver bullet or a cure-all, but if it can help us at all, if it can help the county, I think it's the right thing to do," said Barry Coleman, co-owner of Washington Street Station outside of Woodstock.

Establishments that serve liquor can have up to five of the machines under state law. The state gets 30 percent of the proceeds and gives 5 percent back to the local government, with the remaining proceeds split between the business and the game machine operator.,

Twenty-one business in unincorporated areas sent a letter earlier this year to board Chairwoman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, and the Liquor and License Committee asking for a repeal.

The liquor committee voted last week, 4-1, to recommend repealing the ban.

There were almost 5,100 video gambling machines registered with the Illinois Gaming Board at the end of March, up from 4,353 the month prior.

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