The Cyprus Shriners used to measure their bingo profits in thousands of dollars. Every night would bring in upwards of $4,000 for the Shriners hospitals.
Now they’re lucky to net $1,000 — and more often than not, they lose money, local fundraiser David Gonyea said.
“I think it’s getting marginal at this time,” he said as he surveyed a crowd of about 200 bingo players at the Bingo Palace on Thursday night. “We have few options. There are limited ways we can make money. But we may have to stop doing this.”
The Palace on upper State Street used to have 600 players on a regular night, with games running daily. Now the Palace pulls so few people that the doors stay locked Monday through Wednesday. Barely half the seats are filled on weekends.
But at least people are still playing there. Other venues have seen such a drop in participation in the past four years that they’ve given up the game altogether.
They say they were felled by a one-two punch from the state. First, indoor smoking was banned in the summer of 2003. Six months later, the state allowed video lottery machines at the Saratoga Gaming and Raceway.
Bingo organizers said then that they would persevere. But bingo licenses fell sharply a year later, and the decline has continued.
Only two organizations still run bingo in Schenectady, down from 15 to 20 agencies before the smoking ban. In Albany, licenses are down by half, with seven agencies still trying to raise money through the legalized gambling. Saratoga Springs has four agencies left, down from a high of six.
It’s even worse in Cobleskill, where only two organizations remain on the bingo licensing rolls and one of them canceled all its games this quarter.
The VFW notified the Cobleskill town clerk — who issues bingo licenses — that no games would be offered from March through May. The Cobleskill Elks have carried on, but cut back to two games a month.
That’s more than they’re doing in Schenectady County. The Elks here have given up.
“We don’t have bingo anymore. It really dropped off,” said Rotterdam Elks member Don Russo. “We do other things for charities.”
It’s the charities that really take the hit when bingo is canceled. By state law, the game can only be played if the proceeds go to charity.
The Shriners, youth sports leagues and even churches relied on bingo profits as major fundraisers. But now, they say, the once lucrative game is bringing in almost nothing.
Barbara “Bobby” Jewett of Rotterdam, who runs bingo games at the Palace every Sunday for the Schenectady baseball leagues, said the teams are lucky if they get $200 a week now. They used to take in $2,000 in one day.
“Once they took the smoking away, we really went downhill,” Jewett said. “We lost big time when the smoking stopped.”
At the Bingo Palace, organizers tried to rally by building a glass wall to create a state-approved smoking room. But it didn’t work. The demand for smoking is so low that the entire Palace is voluntarily smoke-free on Thursdays and Fridays now.
“It used to be so crowded in here — if you weren’t here when the doors opened, you didn’t get a seat,” Jewett said. “They started gradually coming back when they built the [smoking] room. We don’t get too crowded.”
She keeps running the games anyway, in hopes of making money for the local baseball teams.
“We try to make money for the kids — that’s why we hope to make money, for these boys,” she said.
But most people are now spending their gambling money at the racino in Saratoga or the more distant Turning Stone Casino, Palace operator Bob Neales said. Smoking is not allowed at the racino, but unlike bingo, smokers can step away from their slot machine without worrying that they’ll miss their chance to win a game.
At Turning Stone, players can smoke, even at the bingo tables. That’s unfair competition, Neales said.
“Give us the same level playing field the racinos have,” he said. “They have free bus trips to the casinos, they can give them all kinds of free things. Our business is cut in half.”
He’s not allowed to offer freebies. Even the charities supported by the bingo games can’t give anything away.
The players who remain faithful to the game say they want to play bingo, rather than wagering on horses or slot machines in Saratoga, because of the charities their money will support.
“Shriners is the only reason I come on Thursday and Friday nights,” said Alex Magiera of Schenectady.
Dottie Goldsmith, who drives to the Bingo Palace from Mayfield every week, agreed.
“I would come here if I knew I was never going to win, because I’m donating to the Shriners,” she said.
Some of her friends don’t feel the same way.
“I know several people who don’t go anymore because they go to the Racino,” Goldsmith said.
The demise of bingo also has a small effect on municipal budgets. Three percent of the profit from each game goes to the licensing municipality, which also keeps 40 percent of the $18.75 licensing fee. The state keeps the rest of that fee, which is charged per event.
However, town and city clerks said they spent so much time inspecting bingo operations and combing through the complicated licensing paperwork that the reduction has had a negligible impact on their finances.