Bingo participation dwindles in Dubuque

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DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — Susan Lovejoy once won the $700 jackpot playing bingo at Colts Community Center in Dubuque. Her eyes still light up when she recalls that night.

But it's not the allure of winning that keeps the Dubuque resident coming back.

"I have lost almost all of my family over the years," Lovejoy said. "Since I've started coming here, all of these people have treated me so nice. They have become my new family."

Lovejoy played her first bingo game at the Colts hall about 15 years ago. She now attends bingo three nights each week, usually arriving early and always staying until the end of the final game.

Stories like hers are not rare in the tri-state area.

The Telegraph Herald reports (http://bit.ly/1hxFdh7 ) there are hundreds of people like Lovejoy — dedicated regulars who have spent decades playing bingo and forming tight, familial bonds with the other die-hard players.

Dubuque long has been considered the focal point of the region's bingo obsession, attracting players from Wisconsin, Illinois and occasionally even Minnesota.

These days, however, Dubuque's bingo culture is facing a future fraught with uncertainty.

Competition from local casinos, coupled with the Iowa law that prohibits smoking in bingo halls, have led to a sizable drop in attendance, local officials said. Unfavorable taxation policies only have added to the troubles.

Don Gagne, executive director of Tri-State Independent Blind Society, has presided over one of Dubuque's largest bingo halls for more than four decades. He cannot recall another time when things looked this bleak.

"In the '70s and '80s, the bingos in this area were doing great. Now, it's almost getting to where you can't make any money," Gagne said.

Times are so tough that Gagne is contemplating selling the organization's current building at 3333 Asbury Road — a space Tri-State Blind has occupied since 1988_- and moving to a smaller location.

Despite the current challenges, Gagne said there are no immediate plans to stop hosting bingo.

"We're still going to operate and keep doing what we can, but I don't know how long we're going to be able to do that," he said.

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Inspired largely by his own life experiences, Gagne founded Tri-State Independent Blind Society in 1972.

Gagne said that, at that time, the tri-state region lacked an organization that provided assistance to the blind and vision-impaired.

The issue hit close to home for Gagne, who suffers from impaired vision and has three children diagnosed with the degenerative eye disease retinis pigmatosa.

Tri-State Blind effectively filled the void in the region, providing services that help the blind and vision-impaired live independent lives.

The organization has long prided itself on being self-sufficient, using everything from book sales to flea markets in order to generate revenue. Bingo, however, has consistently served as its biggest fundraiser.

Now, Gagne is coming to the realization that bingo might not be enough to support the organization.

The problems started in the early 1990s, when the arrival of Dubuque's casinos presented a new form of competition. Iowa's 2008 smoking ban, which included bingo halls but excluded casinos, further depleted crowds.

"We used to get over 300 people a night. Now, we are getting 100, or maybe 150 on a good night," Gagne said.

The majority of participants come from Dubuque, but other areas are well represented, he said.

While bingo games are offered in northwest Illinois and southwest Wisconsin, diehard players say the atmosphere in Dubuque is unrivaled.

The presence of out-of-state residents certainly helps, but it hasn't been enough to stem the tide in Dubuque.

With participation on the decline, the number of bingo halls in the Dubuque area has fallen from 17 at its peak to five, where it has remained since the late 1990s. These institutions collectively brought in just more than $1.5 million in 2013, according to numbers obtained from Iowa Board of Inspections and Appeals.

Tri-State Blind led all bingo halls with total gross revenues of $661,151 in 2013. The Colts Youth Organization generated $409,722.10; Knights of Columbus #510 brought in $234,900; Holy Spirit Pastorate took in $124,168; and Church of the Nativity rounded out the top five with $121,189 in annual revenues.

Five other state-registered organizations collected bingo revenue in 2013, with amounts ranging from $47 to more than $3,800.

Gagne said that while the higher totals might seem large, they present a distorted snapshot of how much cash bingo halls actually make. Game payouts, taxes, utilities and wages for bingo employees eat away quickly at reported revenues, he noted.

The taxes, in particular, rub Gagne the wrong way; for each $100 in revenue Tri-State Blind brings in, the state takes $7, he said. Gagne wants taxes to be assessed on net proceeds rather than gross revenue.

Gagne said he has reached out to state lawmakers in hopes of changing the policy, but little legislative progress has been made.

The Colts Youth Organization is all too familiar with these fiscal realities. Founded in 1963, the drum and bugle corps has long benefited from bingo proceeds.

Jeff MacFarlane, executive director of the Colts Youth Organization, said proceeds have declined dramatically over the past decade.

From 2004 to 2006, bingo generated nearly $400,000 in net proceeds; in the past three years, the organization has "essentially broken even," according to MacFarlane. This has put a tremendous strain on the organization's budget.

"The fundamentals of running a drum and bugle corps haven't really changed that much over the years, so losing that $100,000 (per year) is a big deal," MacFarlane said. "It is a constant pursuit to find that other revenue stream."

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The numbers might hint at the game's local demise, but there still is plenty of life left in Dubuque's remaining bingo halls.

Dubuque resident Ed Welu is one of the many colorful characters that populate the city's remaining bingo institutions.

Welu called his first game of bingo at Holy Ghost more than 50 years ago. He was fresh out of high school at the time, and Dubuque's bingo halls were struggling to find callers.

"Nobody wanted to be a caller because they didn't want to take the criticism from the crowd," he said. "You have to have thick skin to do this job."

Over five decades, he has developed a unique rapport with the players at Holy Ghost, even developing a trademark talent: Welu is well-known for his yodeling and often performs for bingo players on their birthdays.

Holy Ghost hasn't been immune to the area's struggles. The bingo hall used to attract about 300 people per night; these days, the hall's biggest nights draw about 125 people.

Holy Ghost's modest goal is to raise about $10,000 per year to put toward the Holy Spirit Pastorate. This goal would be unattainable if not for Holy Ghost's committed group of regulars.

"We probably have 75 regulars who come every week," Welu said. "They all have their routines; they all sit in the same chairs every time."

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Information from: Telegraph Herald, http://www.thonline.com

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