Forest Park voters made Illinois history on Election Day, becoming the first in the state to chase video gambling machines out of town by popular vote.
In Tuesday’s election, voters in the west suburban village of about 14,000 people narrowly decided to repeal the village board’s two-year-old vote to welcome video gambling. Activists had gathered signatures to put a binding referendum on the local ballot.
With all 11 precincts reporting, the anti-gambling side prevailed with nearly 52 percent of the vote — a margin of 192 votes out of more than 6,000 that were cast in the referendum.
The grassroots anti-gambling movement in Forest Park overcame a high-spending campaign funded almost entirely by out-of-town, corporate gambling interests.
“They spent a lot of outside money to try to convince Forest Parkers that video gaming was right for Forest Park, but we actually convinced the voters that video gaming was wrong for Forest Park,” said Rory Hoskins, a former elected official and 20-year resident of the community who volunteered for the anti-gambling campaign.
No other place in Illinois has seen video gambling begin to operate legally and then rescinded the decision by referendum, according to the Forest Park activists, state officials, and gambling industry lobbyists.
State campaign finance disclosure records show that the pro-gambling campaign committee, which is called “Let Forest Park Grow-Vote No,” has reported raising $65,700 since it formed in late August.
The biggest contribution came from Hoffman Estates-based Gold Rush Gaming — a $28,700 check on Aug. 22.
On Election Day, multiple “no” signs were planted outside polling places in the town.
The pro-gambling campaign also flooded mailboxes in Forest Park with campaign literature. In one mailer, the pro-gambling group argues, “Naysayers said video gaming would diminish property values but property values are UP!”
The state opened the door to video gambling in 2009, and the village board of Forest Park voted in 2016 to join more than 1,000 communities across Illinois that have permitted the machines.
Since then, opponents of that move had pushed for a chance to bring video gambling to a public vote. Local election officials and bar owners fought to keep the issue off the ballot. But activists took their cause to court and finally won the right to hold a referendum this fall.
There are 16 bars and restaurants that the state has licensed to offer video gambling in the leafy, middle-class suburb, according to the Illinois Gaming Board. Ten of those places are in Forest Park’s bustling restaurant and bar district along Madison Street.
Opponents of video gambling said the amount of revenue that the village gets from the machines is relatively small.
The machines netted about $75,000 for the municipal government between the start of this year and the end of September, according to the state’s website.
But much more money was generated for local bars and restaurants — and for the companies that place the machines there.
Voters in the village of Winfield, in DuPage County, also banned video gambling in a referendum in 2012. Unlike in Forest Park, though, the machines had not been licensed and installed in Winfield when that town’s voters rejected video gambling, officials said.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter for WBEZ. Follow him at @dmihalopoulos.