After learning that Riverside’s village board appeared to be on the verge of allowing video gambling in establishments that serve liquor, residents are pushing back — hard.
On Wednesday, the owner of a local real estate business started an online petition to oppose video gambling in Riverside. By noon Thursday some 210 people had signed the petition and dozens of residents left comments stating their reasons for opposing the measure.
“I don’t think anyone knew this was going to be a topic of discussion,” said Nick Fournier, who started the online petition drive early Wednesday. “No one ever heard of this issue even coming up.”
Many of the comments on the petition referred to Riverside’s unique sense of place as a reason to ban gambling.
“Video gaming enriches business owners at the expense of the community. Please keep it out of Riverside,” wrote Riverside resident John Mathews, who is also the chairman of the Riverside Community Caucus, which earlier this year slated three of the trustees who showed support for video gambling last week.
“We have been a community that has been focused on keeping our legacy as a unique and special place to live,” wrote a woman who identified herself as Riverside resident Lisa Lambros. “Video gaming in Riverside would undermine all the years of that work.”
Aberdeen Marsh-Ozga, a member of the Riverside Preservation Commission, also chimed in with a comment on the online petition.
“While the establishments requesting legalization of video gambling in Riverside wish to attract a new crowd (and/or raise revenues at the expense of compulsive gamblers) it will hurt, more than help, Riverside’s environs and reputation,” Marsh-Ozga wrote.
By Wednesday afternoon, Village President Ben Sells took to social media to try and calm the waters, explain what the board had considered on Oct. 15 and assure residents that no final decision on video gambling had been made.
“Contrary to some of the posts I have seen, no action would ever be taken on such a big issue without extensive opportunity for public input, which is why it was included for an initial discussion under ‘Considerations’ on the board’s agenda,” Sells wrote. “It was my specific hope that discussing it at the board level would spark a broader conversation within the community, and I am glad to see that is happening. The fact is that if a majority of residents don’t want video gaming then Riverside won’t have it.”
The opposition grew quickly after the Landmark published an article Tuesday about the village’s board’s Oct. 15 discussion of video gambling. At the meeting where the matter was discussed, trustees appeared to come to a consensus in support of allowing video gambling as long as certain restrictions were placed on it.
For example, the board was unanimous in opposing gambling parlors and external building signage touting gambling. Some trustees said they wanted to require that the machines not be visible to restaurant patrons. At the meeting, Sells asked Village Attorney Michael Marrs to draft an ordinance that trustees could consider in November.
But in a separate interview with Sells on Thursday morning, the village president said that video gambling would not be on the board’s Nov. 5 agenda, although he expected many residents to comment on the matter at that time.
“We need more discussion of this [subject],” Sells said.
Sells bristled at the suggestion that the village board was not interested in seeking the public’s input on video gambling before trustees held a vote on whether or not to opt-in. The subject was listed on the agenda of a public meeting, and anyone who had an opinion on it was free to share it with the board on Oct. 15.
“I don’t know how else you’re supposed to do things,” Sells said. “You have an initial discussion, there’s direction given to staff and then you go forward.”
Sells said he assumed there would be some opposition to video gambling in Riverside. However, he did admit being surprised by the number of people who contacted him in the aftermath of the Landmark’s story being published.
He said he’s also been surprised by the lack of people rallying for video gambling.
“I expected there to be opposition to it,” Sells said. “What I was really interested to see was if there would be any support for it. So far, there hasn’t been any.”
The issue of video gambling bubbled up at the Oct. 15 village board meeting in response to two local business owners, who asked whether the village might reconsider its opposition to it.
In neighboring communities, video gambling brings in tens of thousands of dollars a year in additional revenue to restaurant and bar owners. The municipality also gets a cut of the revenue in the form of taxes.
During their discussion of the issue on Oct. 15, some trustees emphasized that offering video gambling would be an enticement for a business that might otherwise locate elsewhere.
“I think the trustees were looking at it in terms of economic development,” Sells said. “It’s a difficult decision for Riverside.
“On the one hand you want to support existing businesses and encourage new businesses. … But Riverside is a special place and there’s an incentive for businesses to want to be part of a special place. That’s the tension.
“If residents say, ‘We don’t want this,’ I want them to understand the ramifications of saying that. If we lose a business that we have, we have to be willing to accept it’s part of the equation.”