Growing pains of gambling in central Illinois

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PEORIA, ILL. — The house isn’t winning anymore.

In 2019, Illinois casinos saw their lowest-earning year since the 1990s. Riverboats, including East Peoria’s Par-A-Dice casino, reported drops in revenue and admissions as gamblers continue to choose video gaming instead.

Data from the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability showed riverboats reported $269 million in revenue this year. That is the lowest number since 1999 when the boats banked $240 million.

The casinos are losing money in their competition with convenience: the video gaming machines in bars, restaurants, and cafes statewide. As casinos see a steady decline in revenue, video gaming revenue spikes every year.

This week, East Peoria leaders decided to ban new gaming cafes from opening within city limits.

“There are many other opportunities for our residents and visitors to hit established places where video gaming is allowed,” East Peoria Commissioner Mark Hill said.

He said the city’s cap on gaming cafes wasn’t designed to drive business back to the Riverboat.

“Par-a-Dice has been largely, negatively affected over the years of gaming and this wasn’t put into place for them,” Hill said. “But, again, having all the different gaming cafes, we just didn’t see a reason for those here.”

As local jurisdictions use city code to keep a grip on gambling throughout Central Illinois, another seismic shift in the industry is coming at the state level.

The 2019 Gambling Update report from the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability reads, “The declines at the existing casinos may be exacerbated due to the significant increase in competition soon to come from new Illinois casinos, racinos, and from new casinos in nearby states.”

Illinois is doubling down with a sweeping gambling expansion.

In June, Governor J.B. Pritzker signed the massive expansion into law. It will bring new casinos and sports-gambling, all intended to bring in enough money to help solve Illinois’ budget problems.

It’s another growing pain for the industry.

“We’re adding things every day to try and compete,” said Cori Rutherford, Vice President and General Manager of Par-A-Dice Casino.

She says as the industry expands, they’re determined to grow with it.

“We have a new bar, entertainment and restaurant, with live entertainment. People are clearly enjoying it. We just have to keep doing things to bring in a younger demographic,” Rutherford said. “Sports betting is coming soon. We’re extremely excited about it. We plan on doing it as soon as regulations are ready to go.”

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