Though divided, the Northfield Village Board on Tuesday night decided that they are not interested in amending the Village’s code to allow for video gaming machines in local establishments.
The trustees shared their thoughts on the matter during a 20-minute committee of the whole discussion April 18.
Northfield, in addition to every other community in New Trier Township, currently bans video gaming systems, including electronic video poker machines. But in February, Chad Bidwill, co-owner of Stormy’s Tavern and Grille, 1735 Orchard Lane, approached the board and asked it to reconsider the village’s ban, stating he would like to install a small number of gambling machines to help generate revenue.
At the time of that meeting, some trustees indicated they wanted more information before making a decision, and a survey was released to residents to gauge the community’s thoughts on gaming in the Village.
The results of that survey — which consisted of a single question: “Are you in favor of amending the Village Code to permit video gaming in Northfield?” — showed 2-to-1 support for keeping current restrictions in place, with 453 votes (67%) opposed to video gaming and 224 votes (33%) in favor of allowing it.
Besides the survey, the committee of the whole packet contained emails from residents, nearly all of whom opposed gaming. Trustees also received a mix of public comments April 18, including some saying the Village should have used another method to gather information since the survey was accessible to everyone, even nonresidents, and susceptible to users submitting multiple votes.
Trustee Todd Fowler said that he wanted to “keep an open mind” before making a decision, but ultimately said he did not support amending the code.
Fowler worried that if the Village allows for video gaming, any establishment with a liquor license could apply for the machines.
“It’s not just Stormy’s,” he said. “So, I personally am against it.”
Trustees Matt Galin and Tracey Mendrek both reaffirmed their opposition as well.
“I’m not in favor and I think that quite a bit of the correspondence we’ve gotten back from villagers supports that position,” Mendrek said. “I have not changed my mind.”
But Trustee Tom Whittaker, who said Bidwill approached him with the proposal, said he would support amending the code.
He compared it to the Village’s decision to allow cannabis dispensaries, and said that, in his research, he could not find any evidence that allowing video gaming would negatively impact Northfield.
“I don’t think that video gaming is going to bring ‘that element’ into town,” he said. “I think that the people who support Stormy’s will continue to support Stormy’s.”
He added, “I’m a firm believer in supporting our local businesses and doing anything that we can do to help them. And I think that this is a business that has been very supportive of us as a Village and as a community.”
Trustee Charles Orth reiterated his support of amending the village code, which he had previously stated at the February meeting.
Trustee Barnaby Dinges said he could see valid arguments on both sides of the issue, and like Whittaker, compared the discussion to the cannabis debate. Ultimately, he also said he would support allowing Stormy’s to install the gaming machines.
“I think Stormy’s is an iconic business in town,” he said. “I think Chad knows his customers better than anyone. And sometimes, I feel like we say ‘no’ too often. … We put the ‘no’ in ‘Northfield.’”
Village President Greg Lungmus, who acknowledged he was the deciding vote, ultimately said he did not support lifting the current gaming ban, stating a personal opposition to gambling.
But in comments directed at Bidwill, he also said that while the current board does not want to proceed with changing the code, that may not hold true in the future.
“I would suggest that, if you feel very strongly about this, bring it to future boards. Come back again,” Lungmus said. “This is the final decision for tonight, but … in the future, you can come back again.”
Meeting strikes a calmer tone
It was a new month and new tone for Northfield trustees.
The board’s prior three gatherings — a special meeting on March 16 and regular meetings March 21 and Feb. 21 — were marred by uncomfortable confrontations, whether awkward or combative.
Much of the contention stemmed from a Jan. 25 altercation between Village President Greg Lungmus and an Amazon delivery driver. Trustees criticized Lungmus’ response to the incident, including his public questioning of each board member on March 16 in his hunt for who leaked the story to The Record.
The only mention of the incident at the April 18 regular meeting came during public comment, when local resident Kathy Estabrooke said that she’s “saddened” by how Lungmus handled the situation.
“A truthful disclosure and quick response by you, Greg, in January could have, and I will go as far as would have, put this issue to bed,” Estabrooke said. “But here we are in April and it’s still being talked about along the North Shore.”
She continued to say that Lungmus is “blessed that the Amazon driver didn’t press charges,” and criticized him for not acknowledging his behavior.
Lungmus responded to the criticism by saying, “I have always acknowledged my behavior. I took full responsibility for it, in a public meeting, Kathy.”
Estabrooke said that Lungmus should have done so at a regular board meeting and not a special meeting.
“I think we all deserve better,” she said.
Lungmus did not respond further and the matter was not brought up again.
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Peter Kaspari is a blogger and a freelance reporter. A 10-year veteran of journalism, he has written for newspapers in both Iowa and Illinois, including spending multiple years covering crime and courts. Most recently, he served as the editor for The Lake Forest Leader. Peter is also a longtime resident of Wilmette and New Trier High School alumnus.