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County makes ‘tough vote’ to repeal ban on video gaming

Slot room Les Brothers Restaurant Oak Lawn. | TinSfondeles~Sun-Times

Slot room at Les Brothers Restaurant in Oak Lawn. | Tina Sfondeles~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 13, 2013 2:18AM

In 2009, the Lake County Board acted overwhelmingly to ban video gaming in unincorporated areas, voting 18-4 to pass on the state’s newest variation on legalized wagering.

That position was overturned by the slimmest of margins on Tuesday, with the board voting 11-9 to allow some 87 establishments outside of municipal limits to set up video gambling terminals.

The move came following more than an hour of debate that featured board members expressing concerns about the financial and social impacts of video gaming, while area tavern owners called for a level playing field.

“I understand why people are opposed to it,” said Rob Hardman, co-owner of Blarney Island on Grass Lake Road west of Antioch. “The problem is (video gaming) is in Lake County — it’s very much in Lake County.”

Hardman told the board that businesses like his “are at a distinct disadvantage” when compared to taverns in nearby municipalities like Antioch, which allowed video gaming in 2012.

“(The ban) is a killer for those who don’t have it,” said Hardman, adding that for taverns that do have it, “their revenues are up, their food and beverage sales are up.”

But Board Member Nick Sauer of Lake Barrington was among those questioning the long-range social costs of allowing video gaming, saying he doesn’t feel the county should “enact something when we have no idea what the financial impact will be.”

“We need to ask ourselves, ‘What do we want our county to look like long-term?’” Sauer said. “We don’t know what the costs will be, we don’t know what the implications will be.”

Board Member Sandra Hart of Lake Bluff also focused on the economic impacts to both the county and residents, saying she agrees with arguments that “video gambling is highly addictive and destroys families.”

“We’re ignoring the long-term costs (of) creating mini-casinos,” said Hart, who called for a county-wide referendum to gauge public support for video gaming. “Our vote today could bring 435 new gambling units into the county. That could almost double what there is today.”

Reflecting the change in direction by the majority of board members, Linda Pedersen — whose district includes areas around Antioch and Lake Villa — said she still has concerns about video gaming but “I feel a responsibility” to help business owners.

“I think it’s a fairness issue,” said Pedersen, who voted for the ban in 2009. “It’s here. We didn’t bring it here — you can thank the State of Illinois for that, you can thank the municipalities for that. ... We need to let these people have the same opportunities that these (taverns in) municipalities have.”

Also switching her vote from 2009 was Board Member Bonnie Thompson Carter of Ingleside, who said she was responding to tavern owners in her northwest district “asking us to give them the tools they need to make a business decision.”

“This is not an easy vote for anybody,” Carter said, “(but) there are places where you can go literally two blocks (from an unincorporated bar) and have video gaming, or you can go across the street and have video gaming. What they’re asking for is to give them a level playing field.”

Among the board members joining Carter and Pedersen in reversing their 2009 vote were Diane Hewitt of Waukegan, Diana O’Kelly of Mundelein, Brent Paxton of Zion and Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor.

“This is a tough vote,” said Lawlor. “A lot of us represent diverse areas, so it was a challenging thing for all of us.”

With Tuesday’s vote, a roster of eligible businesses that includes 54 bars, 21 restaurants, two fraternal organizations and a number of golf-course clubhouses can apply for a license through the Illinois Gaming Board.

The county would field a sixth of the 30 percent tax on gross revenue from each terminal sanctioned by the state.

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