The Riverside Village Board has put the brakes on any action regarding allowing video gambling in the village, with officials, Thursday night, saying the village’s attorney is not drafting an ordinance for consideration despite directing him to do so last month.
And there’s been no date set for the village board to continue the discussion of video gambling, despite a forceful plea on behalf of Scott Zimmer, owner of The Chew Chew restaurant, for Riverside to embrace it.
Zimmer made his case to the board and to the two dozen or so residents assembled at the meeting, calling the video gambling allowed in the towns that surround Riverside “the single greatest threat to The Chew Chew.”
During his roughly 15-minute address, Zimmer argued forcefully for video gambling as a tax-free economic development tool that Riverside has stubbornly resisted to the detriment of the commercial areas it has said it wants to thrive.
“If you vote this down, if you decide that our restaurants in Riverside are forever going to be at a massively unfair economic disadvantage, someone is going to have to explain to me how that fits in with this board’s agenda,” said Zimmer, noting that he is not seeking to bring the machines into his business because he’s particularly fond of video gambling. Rather, he said, the state of Illinois is forcing his hand.
“I get a sense from what a lot of people have said, that they really don’t understand what this is all about,” Zimmer said. “They think we are debating about a machine. But the reality is, it’s the economic well-being of our downtown.”
He also directly challenged residents who have decried the possibility of video gambling as cheapening Riverside or bringing in undesirable clientele to start their own restaurant in an unfair economic environment and see how they fare.
In the days following news that Riverside was considering video gambling, nearly 300 residents signed an online petition opposing it. That petition was delivered to the village board prior to the Nov. 5 meeting.
Video gambling revenue, Zimmer said, would represent only part of the benefit to his business. The machines would also increase food and drink revenues, he said, by as much as 15 percent.
“That’s an additional month of sales,” Zimmer said.
The extra income would help bring food price down and allow him to pay better wages and attract better employees.
“If you still think there’s a market for a non-gaming restaurant in Riverside let’s, for the sake of discussion, build it,” Zimmer said. “If all the people who signed the petition against video gaming were so passionate about the economic viability of a non-gaming restaurant, you band together and fulfill your vision.”
He called the non-gaming restaurant a “dead” business model and asked why his sales numbers were not keeping up even though Riverside residents want a “no-gambling” policy. Zimmer also asked why there are so few restaurants in downtown Riverside despite survey after survey in which residents say they want more restaurants in town.
“Where are these restaurants? Why are they not here?” Zimmer asked. “The answer is simple: the lack of economic advantage — or how about disadvantage.”
Zimmer also confronted those who say video gambling would turn family-friendly establishments into something less attractive to families.
“I am not going to do anything to that environment to change that for [my children] or your children,” said Zimmer, who rattled off a list of Riverside family names who patronize the restaurant. “The Chew Chew was built by the families of Riverside. I’m not going to jeopardize my relationship with the families of this town because the state is ramming this law down our throats.”
But 16 other people also spoke on the subject, the vast majority of them arguing against video gambling in Riverside for reasons ranging from moral objections to safety concerns.
Village President Ben Sells asked those against the measure if there was any room for compromise, but received little in the way of specific answers.
Nick Fournier, a local real estate broker who started the online petition opposing video gambling in Riverside, suggested that if any place in the village might be able to accommodate video gambling, it’d be Harlem Avenue due to its large traffic counts. That solution, however, wouldn’t help downtown businesses such as Zimmer’s and would put them at a distinct disadvantage in their own town.
Riverside resident Dan Murphy said that the village might consider focusing on Harlem Avenue as a source of untapped revenue potential, saying Riverside had turned its back on Harlem Avenue.
“Something needs to be done to address Harlem,” Murphy said.
It was clear, however, that village trustees did not want to act quickly on video gambling.
“We need more time to digest this,” said Trustee Scott Lumsden. “We all care about this place and need to work through this.”
This article has been changed to clarify Dan Murphy’s comments regarding Harlem Avenue.