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At the Rountree neighborhood Rapid Robert's convenience store, four of the newly banned gaming devices remained operational the morning of Feb. 13, with workers saying they were unaware of the new city law.
Karen Craigo | SBJ
At the Rountree neighborhood Rapid Robert's convenience store, four of the newly banned gaming devices remained operational the morning of Feb. 13, with workers saying they were unaware of the new city law.

Springfield outlaws cash-prize gaming machines

Police begin enforcement without delay, chief says

Posted online

Enforcement began right away within the city of Springfield to quash entertainment devices offering monetary prizes.

Springfield Police Department Chief Paul Williams said enforcement would begin immediately after Springfield City Council’s unanimous Feb. 12 approval of an ordinance outlawing the devices that have been taking hold throughout the city, both in gaming parlors and in convenience stores and smoke shops.

The ordinance states each device on a violator’s premises will constitute a separate offense.

For a first offense, a violator will be subject to a minimum fine of $500. For a second offense, the fine will be $1,000, and for a third offense, there will be a $1,000 fine plus a minimum jail sentence of 30 days.

The court would not have the ability to suspend the minimum sentences, the ordinance states.

“When council passed the ordinance, it went into effect immediately, with no delay,” Williams said. “It’s in effect as of today.”

Williams said officers have a list of businesses with the entertainment devices.

“They will issue them a copy of the ordinance today and make sure they’re aware, and tomorrow enforcement actually starts,” he said.

He added that the offense constitutes a municipal violation.

The machines in question resemble poker or slot machines and are often referred to as “no chance” or “skill gaming” machines because the outcome of the next spin is revealed, thus removing the element of luck, according to the Missouri Gaming Commission and gaming publication Casino.org. Players bet on a play to advance the machine to its next pre-reveal option, and they can do so repeatedly.

In an email, the Missouri Gaming Commission, which is the trade association of the Missouri casino entertainment industry, commended the city for banning what it referred to as illegal slot machines.

“We compliment the Springfield mayor and City Council for protecting their citizens by taking action on this important issue,” the statement said. “This unanimous vote sends a strong message. We ask other city councils and county commissions to take similar action to shut down illegal machines and penalize those who continue to violate the law.”

Williams said police will prioritize gaming centers in its enforcement efforts.

“The top priority would be those places that are unique – the video gaming centers where nothing but this is going on,” Williams said.

“Then we’ll move on to those that have them as an extracurricular part of the business.”

Springfield Business Journal reported last year that SPD targeted enforcement efforts at the Plaza Shopping Center, located at the intersection of Glenstone Avenue and Sunshine Street, in response to crime associated in part with Call & Surf, an internet sweepstakes business. At the time, Williams said officers worked 2,300 hours of voluntary overtime, making contact with 1,100 suspicious persons, writing 165 tickets and making 166 arrests during that period.

“Crime dropped, but once we backed off, it started going back up again,” Williams said.

Williams said there is an ebb and flow of crime surrounding the machines, which exacerbate problems revolving around poverty and economic issues and quality of life concerns.

When asked if stepped-up enforcement would put pressure on SPD officers, Williams said any additional task adds to the workload, but the department will fit enforcement in.

“It’s something new that’s a council priority and a public priority, and we will put it to the top of the list today,” he said, adding that he hopes businesses simply pull the violating machines.

Sudden change
At 8:30 a.m. the morning after the council meeting, a reporter’s visit to the Rountree neighborhood Rapid Robert’s convenience store at the intersection of National Avenue and Grand Street showed a line of four machines that were still operational.

When queried, three uniformed store employees said the machines were available for use, adding they were unaware of the council action.

Over a dozen members of the public were present at the Feb. 12 meeting to see how the vote would go down and left after the measure passed. One of these, Sheheryaar Rafique, store manager of a Phillips 66 gas station on North Glenstone Avenue, said removing the machines would be a hardship for his store.

“We’ve been in business for about 13, 14 years, and we never had any issue running those machines,” he said. “The type of crimes they were talking about, they were there even before our machines were put in place, and they’ll still be there when the machines are gone, so I don’t know – by affecting those businesses, how is it going to help the city?”

Rafique said the machines have been a meaningful income stream for his business, and that is likely the case for all affected retailers, particularly those like smoke shops that cannot rely on gasoline sales for revenue.

“There will be a lot of cutoffs – you know, employees,” he said.

“I would say more than 50% of the businesses will shut down, not now, but maybe in a couple of months.”

Robert Kalwat, historian for American Legion Post 639, also left the meeting with concerns.

“This is a one-size-fits-all solution that’s totally unacceptable,” he said. “The veterans organizations are serving totally different clientele – totally. I understand the business concerns, the small -business owners, but that’s their clientele – not ours.”

Kalwat said the money that comes from the post’s machines supports veterans, including upkeep and operating expenses of the post and funding for its community initiatives.

“This is going to keep us from doing as much,” he said. “It won’t put us out of business, but it’s going to hurt – we’re going to have to make some choices.”

At the meeting, the city’s chief litigator, Christopher Hoeman, clarified that the measure will not impact arcade operators like Chuck E. Cheese and Incredible Pizza Co. Inc., which award credits for game play and allow customers to redeem them for non-monetary prizes, like toys. Rather, the law targets machines that award monetary prizes.

“Prizes in the form of merchandise – even nice merchandise – does not meet the definition of a monetary prize,” he said, clarifying that the prize counter in such businesses are not stores where items can be purchased.

He noted if any such businesses give prizes in the form of gift cards with a cash value, those will have to be discontinued, but the operation should be generally unaffected.

General Assembly inaction
In his comments prior to the vote, Mayor Ken McClure strongly endorsed the measure.

“Over the last few years, our community has experienced the exponential growth of entertainment devices offering monetary prizes,” he said. “Currently, there are literally hundreds of these devices spread throughout the city in dozens of locations, and these are proliferating throughout the state of Missouri.”

McClure said council received letters of support from neighborhood associations and individuals for the measure.

“What we have witnessed is the harm to public health, safety and welfare caused by these devices, including direct and significant negative impact on adjoining businesses and properties, blight and property devaluation, crime, poverty and addiction,” he said. “In contrast, I have not heard anyone, even those opposed to this ordinance, articulate any benefit that these devices bring to our community.”

He added that the industry has not policed itself, and the Missouri General Assembly has been paralyzed in dealing with the problem for years, offering no guidance or support to municipalities and counties.

“As a result, by default, it’s left to local municipalities such as Springfield to act,” he concluded.

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