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Parlor slots now outnumber all Illinois casinos combined

Lucy-2-DG-photos-027Illinois Business Journal photo

Lucy’s Place store manager Pam Schardan greets a slot-playing customer at the Wood River location. She was formerly operator of a coffee shop at the same location before the conversion.
    It was a quiet, wintry afternoon outside the building, but inside Lucy’s Place, the action was hot, with every slot machine occupied and alive with the sounds of winners and losers.
    Yet, this is no casino. A year ago, it was a coffee shop before the operator agreed to sell her equipment to a group of businessmen who leased the building, then took months turning it into a tiny video gaming parlor, lovingly named after one of the owner’s dogs. The coffee shop operator stayed on as a manager.
    The location on Vaughn Road in Wood River houses only the maximum, state-allowed five gaming machines, but it made a nifty $32,246 in net wagering activity between May and the end of November, its first months of operation. The location is among 20 Lucy’s Places in Illinois and in turn they are among the latest in a long list of sites that opened in the state after last year’s launch of video gambling for bars, restaurants, fraternal organizations, truck stops and other sites.
    Scores of similar establishments  have sprung up this past year in Metro East, providing fierce competition to big casinos like Argosy in Alton and the Casino Queen in East St. Louis.
    In October, when there were 140 licensed video operations in Madison and St. Clair counties, those outlets saw net wagering activity of just under $1.5 million for the month, according to Illinois Gaming Board reports. (Another 12 establishments came aboard in the two-county area the following month.) Net wagering is the amount played by gamblers minus the amount that they won. The net is split among host retailers like Lucy’s Place, the state and city governments and the terminal operators.
     Statewide, such video parlors saw $35.95 million in net wagering activity in November, the Gaming Board said, and the figure has increased every month since video gaming began in October 2012  with only 65 licensees.
    Since then, licensed and operating establishments have grown to approximately 2,830 — 97 pages’ worth of entries on the Gaming Board website, which is updated monthly.
    Hundreds more locations have been authorized but are not yet operational, and at press time there were 95 more applications pending for licenses in Madison and St. Clair counties. However, a spokesman for the Gaming Board said the number of new license applications recently dropped and appears to be leveling off.
    The small-scale action appears to have affected the bottom line of casinos  throughout the state, all of which reported decreased adjusted gross revenue in their latest year-to-date reports. For Argosy, the number was down $5.32 million, or 9.34 percent. For the Casino Queen, the decline was $4.89 million, or 4.98 percent.
    The month-to-month comparison was also stark. Argosy was down 13.3 percent from November 2012 to November 2103. Casino Queen was off 1.8 percent. In fact, every casino in the state was down, with the exception of the newest casino, Des Plaines Rivers Casino in suburban Chicago, which opened in 2011 and was up 11 percent in the month-to-month.

medical-marijuanaphoto courtesy Associated Press

Prepared marijuana is shown for sale in Colorado. Illinois’ own law is now in effect but actual licensing of dispensaries is months away, pending formal rules being drafted by several state agencies.
    Several state agencies are hustling to draw up rules for use of medical marijuana in Illinois, a widely watched process that promises to enlist the public’s input before the program is implemented late in 2014.
    A new website was recently launched to help residents understand and weigh in on the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act, which went into effect Jan. 1. The Illinois departments of Financial and Professional Regulation, Public Health and Agriculture now have 120 days to propose final rules governing the program.
    Bob Morgan, statewide coordinator of the four-year program, said the departments are separately drawing up rules of implementation that will be formally presented by May 1 to the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, a review arm of the Illinois General Assembly. The latter body will then have a minimum 90 days to approve those rules and put the governance into effect.
    While many parties have expressed an interest, no one can officially register to become a dispensary, a cultivating center or a participant until the rules are made formal, and Morgan said he is unwilling to predict exactly when that will be.
    The website, www2.illinois.gov/gov/mcpp, will post updates as the rules are being drafted. Eventually, anyone who wants to get involved in one of the state’s cultivation centers or dispensaries will find those applications on the site.
    “We haven’t had any confusion at this point, and we hope the website will clear up any concern that people have,” Morgan said. “This is a process that we hope to be very transparent with a lot of public comment and involvement of local communities.”
    In August, Illinois became the 19th state to approve a medical cannabis law, which was sponsored in part by state Sen. William Haine, D-Alton.
    The law will allow people to receive certification for medical cannabis for debilitating medical conditions. Proponents say medical cannabis can provide relief from continual pain, nausea and discomfort more effectively than conventional medications for patients suffering from serious ailments, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and HIV. The law specifies 40 medical conditions for eligibility.
    The act only permits a physician who has a bona fide physician-patient relationship and is treating the patient’s qualifying debilitating medical condition to certify them for use of medical cannabis.
    Morgan said he has met several people who could benefit from the law.
    “Potential patients I’ve spoken with are very excited about the program. They feel as though the law is very strong, and offers the protections that will allow them to get the relief they need.”
    The new law enacts strict restrictions on the cultivation centers to ensure professional licensing, 24-hour surveillance and inventory control. There will be 22 cultivation centers – one for each State Police District. Each must comply with local zoning laws and be located at least 2,500 feet from day cares and schools.

vapor-loungesIllinois Business Journal photo

A typical e-cigarette starter kit available at Cloud 9 Vapor Lounge in Alton.
    Tom Williams is not blowing smoke when he talks about the growing popularity of vapor lounging. There is, after all, no smoke to blow.
    The proprietor of Cloud 9 Vapor Lounge at 223 East Center Drive in Alton, feels he’s on the ground floor of a burgeoning industry as smokers nationwide seek new ways to quit tobacco. He’s also on the cusp of controversy.
    “These have been on the West Coast since about 2008. There’s a store on every corner in California,” he said, using a bit of hyperbole to describe the rapid growth of the business.
    “The Midwest is always a couple of years behind,” he added.
    The area, though, is catching up. Vapor lounging is popping up across Metro East and similar-technique products are being sold at many local retailers, including Wal-Mart. The difference with lounges, Williams said, is a personalized approach they offer to helping customers quit smoking.
    At the center of it all, of course, is the electronic cigarette, a controversial, penlike device that consists of a battery and a cartridge filled with various flavors of nicotine juice, referred to as e-liquid or e-juice. The battery heats the juice, which releases liquid vapors that are inhaled, giving users the sensation of smoking without the carcinogenic effect of traditional smoking. Some are designed to look like a real cigarette; others look quite different, more high tech.
    The Food and Drug Administration has not approved the e-cigarette as a smoking-cessation device, but to suggest it doesn’t work is not true, Williams contends.
    “The success (in response) is fairly immediate, My business has been open (three) months now. People go home and come back the next day, telling me they notice a difference. I pride ourselves on our knowledge. We help people understand the process and understand addiction. All six of our employees are ones who quit smoking by using these products.”
    There is 1,800 square feet of space in the Alton store, with two lounge seating areas, making it one of the biggest in the market.
    A state law that went into effect Jan. 1, 2014, prohibits anyone under 18 from buying, possessing, being sold to or being given an electronic cigarette.
    Because of potential unknown risks, many school districts and public bodies are enacting policies to treat e-cigarettes like traditional cigarettes.
    Even before the law, Williams was only allowing people 18 or older on the premises.
    He describes his sale process as more of a consultation.
    “Ninety percent is people wanting to quit, or spouses who are trying to help each other quit. We ask two main questions, what do you smoke and how long have you smoked?”
    The answer will determine the nicotine concentration of the product that’s best for the customer. Someone who smokes a Marlboro Red for instance, which is one of the stronger cigarettes, is exposed to 18 milligrams of nicotine per cigarette. Cloud 9 suggests e-juice containing 18 milligrams by volume in response.
    A light smoker, on the other hand, would get the equivalent of 4 milligrams of nicotine.
    While some critics say e-cigarettes simply trade one addiction for another, Williams defends the approach, which he says focuses on treating two basic smoking addictions — hand-to-mouth repetition and nicotine use.
    “Our goal is to give you a much safer alternative. You will quit smoking. It is absolutely amazing, the status of the people who come in to our store.”

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Simmons Firm Donation to Madison County Food Pantries Feeds Hundreds through Holiday Season

Employee Foundation Drive Collects More than 38,000 pounds in donations

SEFdrive1Simmons Employee Nathan Baca loads pallets full of canned food and other items from the Simmons Employee Foundation Food drive at the Simmons Firm's warehouse.    More than 38,000 pounds of food and personal hygiene items were delivered by employees at the Simmons Law Firm to five Madison County area pantries this past holiday season. Employees raised the food during the 7th Annual Simmons Employee Foundation Food Drive.
    “Giving back to others helps make the holiday season brighter, and I think everyone who helps with the Simmons Firm drive feels that way,” said Amy Garrett, Simmons Firm Shareholder and SEF Director. “Because of their work, we were able to deliver six or seven pallets of food per pantry to five pantries that will help feed hundreds of local families who might otherwise go hungry.”
    This year’s SEF food drive raised 38,683 pounds of food and toiletry items and exceeded last year’s total of 36,430 pounds. Firm employees sorted and divided the food into five equal portions of about 7,700 pounds each, which were then shrink wrapped and loaded onto the pallets.
    The pallets were then delivered to the Alton Salvation Army, the Crisis Food Center in Alton, the Community Hope Center in Cottage Hills, the Collinsville Area Ministerial Association’s Helping Hands food pantry, and the Community Care Center in Granite City.
    Holly Allen, emergency social services case worker, was amazed as workers from RCS Construction in Wood River unloaded about six pallets at the Alton Salvation Army.
    “It was such a blessing seeing how much food the Simmons Firm donated,” she said. “Our supplies were running low so it was such a relief. We are very thankful for the delivery and everything the Simmons Firm does to help the community.”
    Across the street, RCS workers Jeff Daugherty and Trevor Shields unloaded another six pallets at the Crisis Food Center. RCS donated both trucks, the gas and the drivers to help load and unload the items.
    “It’s food drives like the Simmons Firm drive that help us continue to provide the nutritional balance our families need,” said Susan Jolley, executive director at the Crisis Food Center in Alton.
    The Center feeds an average of 40 to 50 families a month. For November and December, the number of families fed spikes up to 70 or 80, she said. The firm’s donation is the third largest the center receives each year, behind the Boy Scout Food Drive and the U.S. Postal Service.
    Because of the larger food drives, Jolley said, the center has not had to turn hungry families away, despite the difficult economy.
    “We absolutely couldn’t do it without them,” she said. “Over the last three years, the economy has been tough on the people who need help and on the people who donated as well.”