Despite the moral and religious arguments against gambling, the Grand Victoria Riverboat has been good for Elgin.
But that doesn't mean more gambling would be even better.
When the casino was proposed 20 years ago, opponents said a gambling boat in Elgin would bring crime, prostitution, moral decay, and a serious decline in the quality of life here.
The opposite has been true. Crime anywhere around the casino has been minimal and without the $400 million or so the boat brought into the city, taxes and fees would be much higher and the majority of civic improvements over the past 20 years would not have occurred. People forget that Elgin actually passed a deficit budget the year before the boat began contributing revenue to the city.
More than 50 million people have visited Elgin because of the boat and while they may not have brought the need for the huge retail and commercial base originally envisioned, 50 million people spent money here that we would not have seen were it not for boat, even if it was only at gas stations.
In short, the boat did more FOR Elgin than it did TO Elgin.
But now comes the opportunity to expand gambling in Elgin, an idea borne of desperation by the bankrupt State of Illinois.
If a little gambling is good, a lot of gambling would be better, their warped thinking goes. And so, the legislature approved video gaming devices in bars, clubs, and truck stops. The city would receive 5 percent of the winnings with the host establishment receiving 35 percent and the state, 25 percent.
Proponents estimate that between $375 million and $500 million a year in tax revenue could come from up to 75,000 machines statewide. But municipalities can opt out as about 250 have done to date.
This week, the Elgin City Council will begin debating whether to allow more gambling by amending its ordinances to allow video gaming in bars and clubs.
More gambling in Elgin is a bad idea and the city council should opt out as well.
The Grand Victoria draws patrons from all over Chicagoland and southern Wisconsin. Certainly some of the revenue comes from local residents, but only a fraction. Local bars will receive most of its play from local residents, meaning losses will be spread mostly among Elgin residents. That means that the hundreds of thousands of dollars lost to gaming machines is money that will not be spent in local restaurants, bars, grocery stories, retail shops, etc. That means a couple of things. First, a massive loss of sales tax revenue for items we are not buying because we lost the money in a video poker machine.
Secondly, the Chamber of Commerce has a formula that applies to local money spent locally. It says that for every dollar spent here, it generates about $2 in economic gain because that money generates jobs for people who in turn spend their money locally.
Gambling money is not so disbursed throughout the community, but primarily goes to the bar owner and the state. Elgin receives just 5 percent of the revenue, but stands to lose much more in just the loss of sales tax revenue, not to mention the loss of businesses and jobs which rely on discretionary income to survive.
Moreover, there is only so much gambling money available. Increased gaming opportunities do not increase the amount of money people may gamble; it only spreads it out, diluting it more and more. Even a minor loss of visitors and revenue at the Grand Victoria hurts Elgin more than the 5 percent it would gain.
Lastly, gambling at a central facility that is highly visible, well controlled and regulated is one thing. Putting video gaming machines in taverns diffuses that throughout the community. It is no longer well controlled nor highly visible.
People traveling to the Grand Victoria are going primarily to gamble. They may drink as well but few go there to get drunk and then gamble.
The main business purpose of taverns is to sell alcohol and I can say without fear of contradiction that more people get drunk in taverns in Elgin than ever got drunk at the Grand Victoria. Alcohol and gambling is why there are huge casinos in Las Vegas. Mixing reduced inhibitions and greed is a volatile combination.
Lastly, we used to a city of industry and commerce, a skilled workforce and single family, owner occupied homes.
Elgin has remade itself as a place for technology, the arts and entrepreneurship, engendering a gradual but inexorable rebirth.
Stooping to video machines in bars for a handful of somebody's hard-earned dollars seems cheap and only in keeping with the image Elgin is trying so desperately to shed.