Parlor gambling

The laid-back setting of neighborhood slot joints is targeted

At a Dotty’s on Oddie Boulevard in Sparks, a food bar in the back supplies neighborhood gamblers. Directly across Oddie in a Kmart (see photo below) Dotty’s has a slot concession.

At a Dotty’s on Oddie Boulevard in Sparks, a food bar in the back supplies neighborhood gamblers. Directly across Oddie in a Kmart (see photo below) Dotty’s has a slot concession.

Photo By Dennis Myers

A bill cracking down on slot parlors in Clark and Washoe counties has been approved by the Nevada Senate and is racing toward passage in the Assembly during the last days of the Nevada Legislature.

Aimed mainly at the Dotty’s chain and similar pocket-sized places, Senate Bill 416 will require that future parlors have a bar and restaurant and be at least 2,500 square feet. The bill also goes into detail about what constitutes a bar and restaurant.

The bill was passed at the behest of the big boys in the casino industry, so its chance of reaching final enactment before the lawmakers go home is excellent.

The bill raises the question of whether the state should take sides in competition within an industry, using law as a weapon for one side. It’s a matter that arises frequently in Carson City, as when, for example—in 2011 and then again this year—organic food stores asked for a law that traditional grocery store foods be labeled as products of genetic engineering (see Green, page 11).

The state says in such “restricted license” places as Dotty’s—which can include taverns, slot parlors, sports bars—gambling should be “incidental” to the business’s main function, but that is not how things have worked out in some small arcades, where food and drink facilities serve as window dressing for the slots that are the dominant feature. Moreover, some of those facilities look unlike customary casino settings with their flashing lights and high noise levels. The parlors are quiet and low-key. Their bars are often brightly lit, and the restaurants resemble snack bars. Why that is bad—other than that it drains money from large casinos—was never clearly explained during legislative hearings. The lack of full kitchens also allows the small businesses to permit smoking.

As it became apparent that the definition of “incidental” was evolving in Nevada, the lawmakers could have changed the law to foster those kinds of parlors. Instead, under pressure from big casino lobbyists, they put new burdens on the small places.

“Protection of this industry—there can’t be a higher priority of this body than getting the number one industry in this state right,” lobbyist Pete Ernaut told the lawmakers, a remark that generated considerable comment. Ernaut represents the Nevada Resort Association (NRA), a large-casino group.

Sean Higgins of the Nevada Restricted Gaming Association said the NRA is telling the smaller businesses, “Be successful, but not too successful. Because if you’re too successful, we’ll try to push you back down.”

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As traditional casinos have taken a beating from tribal gambling in California and then from the recession, Dotty’s has thrived, and in some ways its facilities seem innovative, presenting a different look than traditional casinos. The big casinos could have competed by imitating them or buying them out. Instead, they sought intervention by the state against the parlors.

There are 86 “freestanding” Dotty’s around the state, 28 in the north. Dotty’s also operates inside businesses owned by others, such as Kmarts and Food 4 Less grocery stores. Dotty’s operates inside the Kmart on Oddie Boulevard in Sparks, for instance. All of these outlets together come to 109 locations.

The chain employs 800 people, and on May 6 the corporation announced three new locations—in a news release that also unsubtly detailed charitable giving by the corporation and its workers.

Dotty’s seems to have a particular success with one demographic. It is not uncommon for all the customers in a Dotty’s to be women, a fair number in their 40s and above.

On a Yelp website, one Reno woman who signed herself Anne V wrote, “Dotty’s is nice for the person that wants to be left alone to do their own thing, go in [and] gamble with a drink and a smoke. No frills, no trashy bartenders, no annoying drunk people. Just a simple place to play some slots and not be noticed.” She suggests that Dotty’s add television sets. But that kind of relaxed ambience—which the large casinos do not offer—will become illegal in future parlors as soon as the bill passes the Assembly and Gov. Brian Sandoval signs the measure.

As approved by the Senate, the bill requires “a dining area with seating for at least 25 persons in a room separate from the on-premise kitchen. For the purposes of determining the number of seats pursuant to this subparagraph, the stools at the bar or the seats outside the dining area must not be counted.”

A restaurant that serves only cold food is excluded under the law from the legal definition of a restaurant. Hot food must be served.

There must also be “a kitchen which is operated not less than 12 hours each day the establishment is open for business to the public, or the entire time the establishment is open for business to the public if it is open for business 12 hours or less each day.”

And: “’Bar’ means a physical structure with a flat horizontal counter, on one side of which alcoholic beverages are kept and maintained, where seats may be placed on the side opposite from where the alcohol is kept, and where the sale and service of alcoholic beverages are by the drink across such structure.”

The Dotty’s corporation also operates in Montana, using more than 800 gambling devices in 365 taverns.

Following the Senate approval, Dotty’s publicist Reggie Burton said the corporation declined to comment.