The City of Peoria is trying to figure out how to regulate a new type of business that has some residents on edge.
Video gambling cafes, businesses that operate like miniature casinos, have been popping up all over Illinois since they first began rolling out in 2012. The concern in Peoria isn't centered around restaurants and bars that feature gaming machines as an added bonus for their customers; rather, the issue is with businesses centered around the devices, offering only a minimal amount of food, beverages, or merchandise to stay legal.
Some opponents of the establishments also claim they are magnets for crime, prey on the poor, and bring down the neighborhoods in which they operate.
The City Council on Tuesday held a policy session to discuss four options on how to deal with video gambling cafes: create a new type of license, and a license fee, specifically for video gambling establishments; limit the number of video gambling establishments to four per City Council district; require that 25% of total revenue for any business that has video gambling devices come from something other than gambling; or put in place a temporary moratorium on video gaming cafes.
Nothing was decided during the policy session, which served as more of a "jumping off point" for the larger conversation. The discussion was led by Councilman Eric Turner, who says he's talked with locals who are not happy about the businesses coming to town. Turner says he'd like to see the city address the issue before it becomes a serious problem.
"Otherwise, we're going to be dealing with it about a year and a half from now, trying to figure out what we can do about what we didn't do," Turner said.
He says cities like Springfield have already had trouble with video gambling cafes, and have had to repeatedly double back and create new regulations. Turner says a lot of the problems, like associated crime and exploitation of customers, occurred because communities were "caught off guard" by the new industry when it became legal.
"We thought there'd be three, four, maybe five in each municipality, and now, we're being overwhelmed," said Turner.
Councilwoman Beth Akeson spoke out against the video gambling cafe industry as a whole, saying it only exists to take resident's money. She said, while some argue the businesses help bring in tax revenue, the cafes really only take cash from taxpayers without contributing anything else. Councilman Casey Johnson shared similar concerns. He said the city should be sure to look at the demographic makeup of any place a video gambling cafe might go to protect the city's poorest residents from becoming prey for cafe operators.
Meanwhile, other members of the Council suggested that the locations of video gambling cafes be based upon the city's geography, not necessarily City Council districts. Those districts can change, they argued, adding that there should be a set distance between gambling establishments required.
The policy session ended with a direction to focus on looking specifically at licensing fees for the establishments. Currently, there are just a couple of video gambling cafes in Peoria, but city officials say several potential operators are "waiting in the wings," eager to set up shop in town.