W.Md. bars seek OK for tip jars

Recent video poker crackdown has cut revenue, owners say

November 12, 2000|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

CUMBERLAND - Business is not so wonderful at the Wonder Bar these days, and gambling - or the lack of it - is to blame.

The tavern south of downtown used to draw 20 or so customers by lunchtime most weekdays. But patronage has plummeted since its video poker machines disappeared a couple of weeks ago under threat of police raids. Only five stalwarts showed up to drink beer and watch television Friday afternoon.

"It's really hurt us big-time," said bar manager Jimmy Smith. "That's what most of the people came in for, to play the darn machines. Without them, we just have bartenders looking at each other."

After years of closing their eyes to illegal gambling in bars, restaurants and private clubs, Allegany County officials decided recently to crack down.

Their public warning last month that they would begin enforcing Maryland's gambling laws produced the desired effect. Electronic poker machines, which had proliferated throughout the county - popping up in gas stations, liquor stores and neighborhood groceries - vanished nearly overnight.

But the crackdown also had an unintended result: Bars and restaurants that relied on revenue from the illegal games in this economically lagging region now want their lawmakers to go to the General Assembly to legalize another popular form of gambling - "tip jars."

"Everybody had machines, everybody," said Phil Geatz, owner of a steak and seafood eatery of the same name, who used income from his two machines to hire an extra employee. "But now people are losing their jobs. There are some businesses going to close, no doubt."

Geatz, head of a group of bar and restaurant owners, is heading a petition drive for legislation that would allow tip-jar gambling in public establishments licensed to serve alcoholic beverages.

The businesses' pleas have fallen on sympathetic ears. The county's three commissioners have called two public hearings on the issue later this month.

"I just want to know what the people think," said Dale R. Lewis, president of the commissioners. He said that he fears some bars and restaurants could go under without the change but that he would not push for the law if he sees strong opposition.

If approved, such a measure would put bars and restaurants here on the same legal footing as dozens of private organizations in Allegany, which are allowed by law to run tip games.

"I would support leveling out the playing field somewhat," said Del. Kevin Kelly, an Allegany Democrat.

Tip jars are a decades-old form of instant raffle. Players buy "tips" or tickets from a container and peel back paper windows to see if they have won money based on the numbers or cartoon-like pictures displayed inside. Payouts can range from a few dollars to hundreds.

The pastime is popular - and legal - in other states and in parts of Maryland. In Allegany, it is permitted only in private social and civic clubs and organizations, such as the Elks, Eagles, American Legion and volunteer fire companies.

Many bars and restaurants had quietly operated illegal tip jars here for years. Then video poker machines surpassed them in popularity, especially after county State's Attorney Lawrence V. Kelly declared four years ago that he would not enforce the law.

The veteran prosecutor says he had hoped his position would help spur reform of the state's patchwork of gambling laws. He still grumbles about how video poker machines are permitted in private nonprofit clubs on the Eastern Shore but are illegal in western Maryland.

"Maryland's gambling laws are absurd, ridiculous, make no sense," he said last week.

But last month, pointing to a growing number of complaints, Kelly joined with the county sheriff, Cumberland's police chief and the head of the local state police barracks to announce that illegal video and tip-jar gambling would no longer be tolerated.

"We have no one to blame but ourselves," said Bob Kelley, a trustee for the Eagles Club in downtown Cumberland, which had nine machines. Businesses and clubs alike were adding more and more poker devices, sometimes brazenly.

Within days of the crackdown, announced in the local newspaper, the machines were gone. Bars, restaurants and the private clubs now say sales of food and alcohol are off significantly because patrons who used to camp out for hours in front of the devices stopped coming in.

Some residents who frequented bars with video poker machines say they now drive across the Potomac River to West Virginia, where such devices are permitted.

"There's so little going on in this town, it's like `The Last Picture Show,'" said Dolores Vanyo, a schoolteacher, referring to a 1971 film about a dying town in Texas.

Private clubs and fraternal organizations say that revenue from video poker enabled them to give sizable donations to schools, hospitals and other charitable causes. Now, though they are still able to raise money from tip jars, club officers say the gifts will be smaller.

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