After a decadelong slide, pulltabs, bingo and other forms of charitable gambling are bouncing back in Minnesota, with gross receipts up 8.6 percent statewide this fiscal year and expected to top $1.1 billion, according to the Minnesota Gambling Control Board.
That’s the biggest percentage increase in more than 20 years and the third straight year-to-year rise.
“It’s just clear to us the economy has rebounded,” said Al Lund, executive director of Allied Charities of Minnesota, which represents the nearly 1,200 nonprofit groups running charitable gambling operations in the state. “People are back out enjoying themselves and are willing to donate to their local charities.”
That appears to be especially so in Anoka County. The 29 nonprofits based there eclipsed $101 million in gambling receipts in 2013, a 14 percent jump from 2012, according to Gambling Control Board data. That works out to roughly $300 in charitable gambling by every man, woman and child in the county, compared with about $200 per person for the state as a whole.
“Anecdotally [Anoka County] is a very strong area for charities,” Lund said. “The charities that are up there are very active. People know what they do in their community and they are willing to donate.”
Data for other counties aren’t yet available; the Gambling Control Board will issue statewide numbers later this month.
When gross revenue from charitable gambling dipped below $1 billion in 2010 — the lowest it had been in two decades — some theorized that a generation gap might be a factor. But Lund of Allied Charities said the younger generations are buying in, fueling a resurgence in bar bingo in particular.
“Paper bingo is enjoying a resurgence with young people. It’s an interesting development we didn’t see coming,” he said.
Although some nonprofits are dabbling in the new electronic games, more than 90 percent of statewide charitable gambling revenue still comes from paper pulltabs, Lund said. E-gambling accounts for only about 1 percent, he said. The failure of electronic games to catch on sent state officials scrambling earlier this year to find alternate funding for the new Minnesota Vikings stadium that the games were supposed to underwrite.
Playing the games
Paper pulltabs, bingo, meat raffles and electronic games are played at places like the Ole Piper Inn in Blaine, one of six sites where the Blaine Youth Hockey Association conducts charitable gambling.
On a recent night, patron Tricia Sandberg was one of those trying her luck. She and her husband typically buy pulltabs when they stop for dinner and drinks once a week, she said.
“If you are winning, we keep playing. If you are not winning, you keep playing,” said Sandberg, who works for the state health department. “I love the pulltab lady. She’s my friend’s mom.”
The pulltab lady, Teri Nichols, has worked charitable gambling booths for 26 years, the past 10 for Blaine Youth Hockey. Most of her business comes from regulars who don’t hesitate to drop a few hundred bucks over the course of a night, she said.
Blaine Youth Hockey was the highest-grossing charity in Minnesota in 2012 (the most recent year for which statewide data are available), bringing in $13 million in gambling receipts. The total dipped to $12 million this year, after a fire temporarily closed one of the sites where the group operates, but it still expects to top the 2013 state list, according to its gambling manager, Suzanne Slawson.
Asked about the secret to the association’s success, Nichols said: “It’s run right. Friendly to customers. There’s high percent payout games.”
Friendly service goes a long way, she says. She chit-chats and jokes with customers. “You know how many times I hear, ‘One more time,’ ” she jokes with one.
The Centennial Youth Hockey Association in Lino Lakes has also fared well. It had gross charitable gambling receipts of $9.3 million in fiscal 2013, up from $7.8 million in 2012, when it was fourth in the state.
A new nonprofit, Blaine’s Blazin’ Fourth, affiliated with Blaine Jaycees, recently joined the charitable gambling scene and grossed $4.4 million at two sites in fiscal 2013, its first full year.
“Many of our customers are tired of thinking the world is going to fall apart. We want to enjoy ourselves again,” said Linda Brausen, gambling manager for Blaine’s Blazin’ Fourth, who has been in the pulltab business for 23 years.
Nonprofits cite strong locations as a factor in success, and Anoka County had four of the state’s top 10-grossing gambling sites in fiscal 2013: a pair of restaurants in Blaine, one in Fridley and one in Ramsey.
Payouts, expenses, proceeds
Of the $101 million in gross gambling receipts in Anoka County this fiscal year, about $85 million was paid out in prizes and $3.1 million went to the nonprofits, according to Gambling Control Board data. The rest covered taxes, fees and expenses.
Blaine Youth Hockey paid out about $10 million of the $12 million it brought in, and after expenses, taxes and fees, about $780,000 went to the nonprofit. The association shares the wealth, donating to youth baseball and Blaine High School hockey. For Blaine Blazin’ Fourth, the net is about $162,000, some of which will pay for the Blaine midsummer festival.
The uptick in gambling means some cities have more money to play with, too. Blaine is one of 63 Minnesota cities that take a 10 percent cut of gambling proceeds (after payouts and expenses), as allowed by state law. The city will collect $92,000 in 2013. It will give $40,000 to the homeless shelter Alexandra House, $27,500 to local food shelves, $10,000 to the Blaine Historical Society and lesser amounts to other nonprofits.
Blaine officials say its fund has grown faster than expected and the city is happy to share the money with charities.
“People just have more spendable incomes,” said the city’s finance director, Joe Huss. “It seems to run so hand in hand with the economy and unemployment numbers.”