LIMA — With legalized sports betting looming on the horizon, Ohioans could by the beginning of 2022 be able to wager on sporting events from the comfort of their homes or from their cell phones. Ohio lawmakers say they hope to move quickly on the gaming bill.
“The goal of getting sports betting done before we recess for the summer is a high priority,” House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, said last week.
Until then, residents of the greater Lima area will have plenty of wagering options. From Bingo to pull tabs at fraternal and veterans organizations to the ever popular Ohio Lottery, there is money waiting to be won — or lost — seemingly at every turn.
Increasing numbers of other gambling options are also turning up routinely around the state in the form of storefront businesses which offer what are licensed as skill-based amusement machines. Not all of those businesses are created equal, however, and not all are operating fully within the law.
Jessica Franks is the director of communications for the Ohio Casino Control Commission, the agency that regulates gambling throughout the state. She said the commission has worked vigorously to “put a fine bright line between true skill games and illegal casinos.”
Skill games by definition include a wide range of legal machines — from the claw-crane games widely seen in grocery stores and restaurants to the video arcade games at Chuck E. Cheese and similar sites that spit out tickets which are then redeemed for prizes.
“True legal skill games can only offer merchandise prizes valued at $10 or less,” Franks said. “Any other payout constitutes a violation of a business’s license and could result in civil or criminal penalties for those operators. We have a variety of enforcement actions at our disposal.”
The OCCC spokeswoman said there is “no shortage of bad apples” who are operating illegal casino-type payouts under the heading of state-licensed “skill game” businesses.
“Those bad apples come into a town and show the building owner or a municipal official a letter drafted by a lawyer that says they are operating a real skills game business,” Franks said. “These places are incredibly lucrative, and they are very good at muddying the waters to the point that it makes it difficult for local officials to understand the rules and regulations involved.”
That’s where the Casino Control Commission can help.
“We are happy to work with local entities to help them understand what the laws are and to provide the tools for locals to know if these places are legit,” said Franks.
Licenses issued to skills game operators list the type of machines that may legally be used inside the operation. That information is readily available to officials, which “gives local governments the ability to determine if businesses are running afoul of the law,” said Franks.
Allen County has several venues
Among a handful of licensed skill-game gambling sites in Lima are the 777 club in the Cross Creek Center plaza along Elida Road and the 777 Bar and Sweet Cherry Arcade, both on Bellefontaine Avenue. All three feature signs stating they are “members only” clubs.
The former Lucky Dog Skills Game location on Elida Road currently sports a “For Sale” sign in the window and the Buckeye Skill Games and Fish Tables on Elida Road shows little sign of recent activity.
Franks said there are currently at least 10 locations in Allen County that have applied for Type C licenses that govern skill games which award tickets as prizes. Of that total — which the OCCC spokeswoman said is “not an exhaustive list,” — five hold active licenses, four have submitted applications which remain under review and one application has been withdrawn.
License applications list business names but do not include addresses, making it difficult to sift through the data, she said. Names on licenses do not necessarily match that on the door of the business, further complicating the ability to track license-holders.
Tony Geiger, law director for the City of Lima, earlier this week said he is “not at liberty to comment” on investigations into possible illegal gambling activities at various locations within the city “other than to say that these are issues we are continually reviewing.”
Allen County Prosecutor Juergen Waldick said his office is not currently involved in any investigations into storefront gambling sites and a spokeswoman for the Allen County Sheriff’s Office said there is no record of complaints filed or actions being taken against other local gambling establishments.
According to records provided by the Lima Police Department, there have been 21 calls for police service at 777 Bar on Bellefontaine Avenue since Jan. 1, 2019. The vast majority of those calls involved automated fire/burglary alarms, although police were called to investigate an armed robbery, a breaking-and-entering incident and an attempted burglary earlier this year.
There are no similar reports involving other gaming establishments in the city during that time period, although many of the aforementioned businesses are located outside the municipal limits.
Franks said if it is determined that a so-called skills game proprietor is operating illegal casino-type machines, a search warrant will be sought and “we will go in and confiscate the illegal machines. We’ve seized more than 3,000 illegal slot machines” since the commission was given regulatory authority over skills games in 2018, she said.
A lengthy battle against illegal gaming
Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, authored legislation in 2013 to prevent walk-in gambling establishments from operating as mini-casinos. The bill clarified the definition of a prohibited scheme of change and outlawed sweepstakes games on sweepstakes terminal devices if they give out prohibited prizes (cash, alcohol or tobacco) or more than $10 in merchandise prizes per play. It also authorized the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation to investigate criminal activity.
“This legislation protects the public and addresses a growing law enforcement concern with the widespread expansion of these sweepstakes establishments,” Huffman, then a state representative, said at the time.
Eight years later, however, he admits that there are cracks in the law. Speaking to editors of The Lima News last week on a variety of topics, Huffman made reference to establishments on Bellefontaine Avenue near Memorial Health System that he hinted may be operating in the gray area of the law.
“When you drive by Memorial hospital there are gambling operations there. If they are in fact gambling now, which by the sign on the front door it looks like they are, they’re not allowed to be because they don’t fit into any of the five categories of gambling” defined in the 2013 bill.
Even new gambling legislation is coming under scrutiny. The director of the Problem Gambling Network of Ohio earlier this week said a bill currently being considered in the Ohio Statehouse could make the problem of illegal gambling sites even worse.
Derek Longmeier warned that draft legislation being considered in the Ohio General Assembly could lead to hundreds of new casino-style gambling machines across the state. He said the substitute version of Senate Bill 176, released Wednesday by the Ohio Select Committee on Gaming, would authorize an unlimited number of under-regulated casino-style slot machines in nearly 900 locations across the state.
The new gambling venues would not share their revenue with education and other state programs “and would offer unprecedented and unchecked gambling access to Ohio residents, including teenagers,” he claimed.
As lawmakers attempt to sort out the best approach to legalized gambling, Franks said the lure of winning prizes will continue to entice community members to take part in games of chance.
“People are looking for a form of local entertainment,” Franks said. “With full service casinos in Toledo, Dayton or Columbus too far for some residents to travel, these walk-in establishments will continue to do well. But there are risks involved. If it’s an illegal gaming operation, those proprietors are not obeying the same rules as legal machine operators. Their games are set up to make it very difficult for customers to win.”