- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 23, 2015

CHICAGO (AP) - Plans to refurbish a half-empty strip mall outside Chicago into multiple video gambling cafes have been rejected by Illinois Gaming Board members who questioned it as an attempt to skirt state regulations and create a “back-door casino.”

Officials in the small suburb of Hometown - a community of roughly 4,500 people - hoped to create jobs and spur development in a decades-old strip mall that’s seen businesses leave. The proposed casino parlors, each with its own gambling terminals, would operate separately, but be located under the same roof.

Board members voted unanimously at Tuesday’s meeting to reject video license applications for three operators involved.

“All three of these locations relate to what have been called video gaming malls, mini-casinos, casino malls, and back-door casinos,” Gaming Board Chairman Donald Tracy said ahead of the vote. “I view gaming malls as back-door casinos, as I said at the last meeting, without the traditional safeguards of licensed casinos such as regulated security, on-site oversight, position limits, self-exclusion rules and internal controls.”

Illinois enacted video gambling in 2009, allowing certain establishments up to five terminals. Overall, it’s been a reliable revenue source.

As other gambling revenues have declined, video gambling money in Illinois has increased, according to a General Assembly Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability report. Meanwhile, legislators’ attempts at creating more casinos in Illinois have failed. Former Gov. Pat Quinn twice vetoed plans. First-term Gov. Bruce Rauner has said he’d support the idea if local communities want it.

State Rep. Bob Rita, a Blue Island Democrat, has been trying to revive casino expansion, though the issue is on the backburner because of the state budget impasse. He objected to the Hometown strip mall plan, a concept at least one other suburb has been considering.

“When video gaming was passed, it was never intended to create neighborhood casinos,” he said Wednesday.

Hometown Mayor Kevin Casey called that an unfair characterization.

“The term ‘casino’ is ridiculous,” he said. “We don’t play black jack.”

He said the project could create up to 60 jobs, spawn spinoff business and entice new customers to existing businesses. Such opportunities are rare in Hometown, he said, which encompasses less than a square mile and is landlocked.

He questioned the motives of the board’s vote, saying big gambling institutions didn’t want the competition and were behind the decision. He added there was the potential of a lawsuit.

Board chairman Tracy said competition had nothing to do with the board’s decision.

“We considered all the facts of the situation,” he said Wednesday, “and then made our decision.”

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Follow Sophia Tareen at https://twitter.com/sophiatareen.

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