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Struggling municipal golf courses turn to video poker, slots

Foss Park Golf Course in North Chicago offers slots. | Casey Toner / BGA

Struggling municipal golf courses are turning to video poker and slot machines in an effort to make up for declining revenue.

More than a dozen taxpayer-funded golf courses in Illinois have tried legal gambling in the past three years, though with mixed results.

The public courses are located in New Lenox, Elk Grove Village, Hoffman Estates, Joliet, Countryside, Blue Island, Glenwood, Worth and North Chicago and, outside the Chicago area, in Winnebago County, Streator, Cahokia and Moweaqua.

The municipal courses split any profits with the gaming-machine owners. Altogether, they took in a total of more than $1 million from 55 machines located in their clubhouses, after taxes, records show.

Gaming machines at The Sanctuary in New Lenox. | Doug Longhini / BGA
Gaming machines at The Sanctuary in New Lenox. | Doug Longhini / BGA

“It’s just becoming part of the norm,” says Bob Schulz, director of golf at The Sanctuary, an 18-hole course owned by the New Lenox Community Park District.

Still, two public golf courses — in Chicago Heights and University Park — didn’t bring in enough money to continue operating the gambling machines. Seven machines were removed from those courses after taking in a total of just $17,268 after taxes in little over 18 months.

Citing hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses overall, University Park closed its course earlier this year, then turned over management to a private company.

The gambling machines are allowed under a state law passed seven years ago to help bars and restaurants.

Since early 2013, gamblers have spent a total of $18.7 million on machines at municipal golf clubhouses, bringing in about $450,000 in state and local taxes, records show.

One of the first local government agencies to offer video gambling was the Foss Park District in North Chicago, which installed five machines in April 2013 at its 18-hole Foss Golf Course. Since then, gamblers have poured more than $8.7 million into the machines there, won $7.9 million back and netted the park district about $254,000.

Foss Park Golf Course. | Casey Toner / BGA
Foss Park Golf Course. | Casey Toner / BGA

The Foss Park District board voted earlier this month to give its video-gambling machine contract to HyperActive Gaming, where Anthony Jones, a park board member, works as a compliance officer. Jones recused himself from voting on the contract.

Jones was appointed to the park board in May to fill a vacancy left by Susan Dixon, who was convicted of theft for stealing from a 2014 park district Toys for Tots charity event. HyperActive hired Jones in January 2014, months after he retired from the Illinois State Police, where he spent the previous 14 years overseeing licensing investigations for the Illinois Gaming Board.

In Hoffman Estates, the park district’s Bridges of Poplar Creek Country Club has struggled even after it began operating the machines in June 2014, taking in only $5,946 since then. Last year, the park district lost more than $65,000 on the course.

Brian Bechtold, the park district’s director of golf, says the small amount of revenue may spur the video gaming operator, Gold Rush Amusements, to remove the machines.

Glenn Leonard, Gold Rush Amusements’ compliance director, says, “If they are successful, we will be successful, and we won’t remove the machines.”

The New Lenox Community Park District began operating five video gambling machines at its golf clubhouse last September, keeping them in a room that’s closed during the district’s youth golf league. They’ve brought in $7,379 so far for the course, which loses $50,000 to $200,000 a year, according to Greg Lewis, the district’s executive director.

“If you want people to keep coming out, you have to invest money into the course, or you will have a goat ranch,” Lewis says. “You won’t have something people will pay top dollar for.”

Casey Toner is an investigator for the Better Government Association.