Last updated: August 25. 2013 7:06AM - 491 Views

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LIMA — Three hours before the first game will be played, Carol Snider is in her seat shortly after the doors open at American Legion Post 96.It's her birthday; she turned 68. She's celebrating with a piece of cake from the concession stand. A bingo friend fashioned a birthday centerpiece for her using a dauber as a base. A dauber, for the uninitiated, is the marker bingo players use to mark their cards. Daubers aren't used as much as they used to be; much has changed about charitable bingo games, including the move from paper to computerized cards.Snider has been playing bingo since she first went as an eighth-grader with her mother. Through the decades, the money she's spent on her hobby has added to significant pots of money funding charities, churches and schools. Like the paper game itself, revenue to support those causes is harder to come by.Other available gaming, Ohio's smoking ban, the weak economy, and a generational difference are all significant challenges for the charitable bingo landscape. Declining attendance, the difficulty of recruiting volunteers, and slim margins caused two of Allen County's biggest games to call it quits after decades of operation.The basicsThe bingo fiscal year runs from November to October. In a study of bingo years 2006 to 2010 (the most recent year available), 15 groups in Allen County have had Type I bingo licenses. Of those, six have lost money, and one barely made a profit. In Auglaize County, four of the 10 with licenses during that time lost money. In Putnam County, one of 10 lost money.While it may have made big bucks in the past, bingo has become a fundraiser that brings in a lot of money but takes just as much to put on. Senior Citizens Services Inc., which showed the largest profit among games in Allen County, is typical. In five years, bingo made a total of nearly $93,000 for the agency. Bingo created $1.75 million in revenue but had $1.66 million in expenses during that same time.Elida Band Boosters runs bingo three days a week at the American Legion. For $25, a player gets a computer with 90 cards and a free paper sheet of nine cards. The doors open at 4 p.m., but games don't begin until an early-bird game at 6:45 p.m. Players can also play instants, and many do, handing over $10 bills and $20 bills for pull-tab tickets that are $1 each. They can also purchase tickets for the jackpot, which grows from week to week.Some people say computers are killing bingo, but Snider likes them. She said she has seen it help “older” players keep playing because the computer keeps track for players. “I started out playing with three cards. Then I went to six. It took me a long time to get to eight. Maybe a year later then I went to 12. If you can't sit and play, you're playing too many cards,” Snider said.Facing challengesBingo money is not what it used to be, said Jeremy Hayes, who has volunteered with Elida Band Boosters bingo for a decade. The group used to be able to pay its bills on the basic business through the door each night, Hayes said, and made its real money on things such as the instant games and concessions. Smokers would come in early and buy instants; now more of them stay home until shortly before the games start.“This stuff was the gravy,” Hayes said of the instants and extras. “Now we need it to pay the bills. We pay out everything that comes in the door. Years ago, you could make $2,000 at the door, and that would pay your bills. Years ago, we'd have 200 people every night. Now, 150 is great, but we usually average something like 110.”The boosters for years rented Veterans Memorial Civic Center for its bingo. When it did so, it also ran concessions there, which added to revenue. Now at the legion, the boosters no longer run concessions. It was part of the trade-off when the boosters walked away from a signed contract at the Civic Center and moved to the American Legion.The Civic Center charged the boosters $450 in rent for each session, the maximum allowed by Ohio law, center Executive Director Cindy Wood said. The rent didn't quite cover the labor required to set up and cleanup the room, but it was regular income.“You have the requirements and needs of running bingo versus what a facility is willing to provide,” Wood said. “There was good and bad for us. It was a lot of labor, but it was a regular customer. Bingo is a changing world right now.”At the Civic Center, the Elida bingo some nights couldn't make enough to cover its costs, Hayes said, so the economy didn't work for either side.At the Legion, Hayes said volunteers now do more of the work themselves. More work and giving up five hours a night take their toll on volunteers. The boosters and other groups struggle to find volunteers willing to work bingo.Pulling the plugAfter years of watching profits dwindle and talking about ending them, two Allen County agencies pulled the plug on their bingo games in 2011. Senior Citizens Center Inc. stopped in July, and Humane Society of Allen County hosted its last game in December.“We discussed it and monitored things for a good year. We did not enter into stopping it lightly,” said Betsy Winget, executive director of the senior center. “Our faithful players were disappointed. Every now and then, someone will still ask, ‘Are you bringing bingo back?'”At the end, the Elm Street center saw 90 players on a good day, about half of what it was during the well-attended years, Winget said. The center tried to make some changes and went from two days a week to one.The revenue wasn't worth the time and labor. And fixed costs pulled from a smaller and smaller pot of revenue, said Winget and Humane Society of Allen County board President and Acting Director Michael Ley.Ley found Humane Society bingo ads in The Lima News that date back to at least the 1970s. For decades, bingo was the nonprofit's sole revenue source, bringing in as much as $300,000 a year with an average of 600 players nightly, Ley said.More recently, however, the revenue was less than $20,000 a year. In 2011, the group averaged only $150 a month profit. When bingo is busy, it requires 10 to 20 volunteers to run well; some weeks, the Humane Society could muster only three volunteers for the whole night.“There were thoughts to end bingo for many years, through many boards,” Ley said. “We just finally made the decision on it.”Winget had similar issues. The only people working a bingo game who can be paid are security personnel. Everyone else, including employees of the agency, must volunteer their time.“It's hard to find volunteers,” Winget said. “Everyone is a volunteer. The law is clear about that.”Lots of factors have added up to declining attendance. There's a saturated market from new groups offering competing bingo games. There's the recession and resulting weak economy. Then there were casinos opening within easy drives in neighboring states. The casinos opening in Ohio this spring and summer will further cut into the charitable bingo business, providers believe.“We were trying to compete with new groups offering bingo at lower costs, but when we lowered our costs, the profit wasn't there for us,” Ley said. “We also had fixed costs, hall rental, bingo supplies, computerized bingo supplies.”Sticking with itAt the Knights of Columbus Council 1757 in Ottawa, the Monday night bingo game remains popular. The typical crowd of about 150 hasn't changed much, council Grand Knight Rick Maas said. The council also still uses all paper and hasn't switched to computerized games.In five years, the group has made $39,000 in profits. All bingo net proceeds subsidize the council's donations. That includes 30 percent off the top to five parishes and also donations to things such as high school proms and causes such as Right to Life activities.“We give it all away,” Maas said. “Some other groups in Putnam County have talked about shutting down, but we never have.”For now, there are enough players such as Snider and Kathy Lacher. Lacher plays at least three nights a week to sustain some bingo. Lacher plays at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, Lima Central Catholic bingo at Fraternal Order of Police, and at a game in Ada.“I like being around people, and we're pretty lucky. I had always said I wouldn't go bingoing as much as my mother. I ate those words,” Lacher said. “I've been playing the last five years. My mom's been playing 30 years. She's noticed a lot of changes. The crowds are down. At one time at St. Rose, you couldn't get a seat.”Snider gets ready with her good luck charms, a little stuffed bear and a blond cowgirl bobblehead, Giddyup Gail, that came with a matching dauber that she won as a bingo prize.“Bingo gets me out of the house. I have a lot of friends from bingo,” Snider said. “My husband died in September, so if I wasn't doing this, I'd be staring at four walls.”Elida Band Boosters remains, but Hayes can't believe he's even contemplating a day when it doesn't. Because of a friendship with the man who runs the Elida bingo, he continues to volunteer his time three nights a week “because nobody else will.” The volunteers at the game are not generally band parents; they are a small group of longtime volunteers and friends who enjoy the work and social time.“People just don't volunteer anymore. We're still around. It's harder,” Hayes said. “You used to count on a few big money players every night. Now you're lucky to get one. There's not as much money to go around. Bingo halls are getting smaller. A couple of years ago, Joe Baughman, director of the Elida game and a game at the local Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks club, said he could see a day when there is no longer any bingo, Hayes said.“I thought, that's crazy,” Hayes said. “I don't see it. But he might be right.”

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