Kathy Robertson and Janet Haynes got to the bingo hall an hour before game time. They picked out their favorite seats at a long wooden table, bought a $20 package of cards and began setting up their fuchsia and purple markers.
"We play three nights a week, sometimes five if we can get away with it," said Robertson of south St. Louis County during a recent bingo outing. "We play anywhere and everywhere."Robertson and Haynes may be part of a vanishing breed - bingo regulars at a time when the game is declining in the face of stiff gambling competition from casino boats and state lotteries.
Charity bingo proceeds have built church wings and school halls. They've provided scholarships and a host of social services. Over the year, they've financed sports teams, baseball diamonds and sports events.
But the casino boom, coupled with higher costs, lower profit margins and a constitutional ban on bingo advertising, has forced charity bingo operators to work hard to keep their games profitable. They offer different price packages, free games for groceries and low-cost suppers. Before and between games on computerized boards and television screens, they provide instant pull-tab games that work like paper slot machines.
Despite the attractions, however, both the number of games and the size of the house is down and dropping.
Figures of the Missouri Gaming Commission, for example, show 787 licensed bingo operators in the state, a figure that doesn't include 477 special temporary licenses for groups that offer bingo at such single events as county fairs.
Last July, there were 857 bingo operators. The year before that, 927.
With less than two months left in the fiscal year, the state has taken in $3.5 million in taxes, down from $6.3 million in 1995. Part of the decline is a change in the tax collection method, said Harold L. Bailey Jr., public information officer for the Gaming Commission.
Part of it is a decline in attendance.
Robertson and Haynes played bingo Thursday night at the Orlando Gardens Banquet Center off Interstate 55 in south St. Louis County.
The games every Thursday from 6:45 p.m. to 10 p.m. are run by the Singer Institute, which operates a weekend retreat house for the counselors of drug and alcohol addicts.
The manager of the game said she has seen the average attendance drop over the past two years to 160 from 200. She said the casinos are the main reason for the decline, although she noted some die-hard players will take a boat trip, then play bingo and then head back for the boats.
Mark Sampson, the game's assistant manager, said the price of everything has gone up in recent years. The Singer Institute, he said, needs to take in $5,000 a night to cover expenses, which include $3,600 in prize money for 20 games.
Rising prices and stagnant attendance caused the International Institute of Metropolitan St. Louis to drop its Friday night bingo games three years ago, says Anna Peterson Crosslin, the institute's executive director.
"I saw that bingo would drop significantly as the boats opened, so we got out before they opened in Missouri," Crosslin said. "For all the positives that casino gaming has had for the city, it has also had a very negative impact on not-for-profit groups."
Robertson and Haynes say they will keep filling their bingo cards until the last parlor closes. Both have been to the casinos, but they prefer bingo. They have even taken bus trips to bingo parlors in Oklahoma and Wisconsin.
Haynes, who lives in Jefferson County, says the restriction against bingo operators is unfair and should be lifted. Casinos and the state-run lotteries can advertise. Why not charitable organizations, she asked. Even the word bingo can't be used on signs.
The last attempt to change the constitution and allow bingo advertising was defeated by voters in 1990.
Billboards dot the interstates with ads for casinos. Compare those billboards to the lone banner that fluttered from the banquet center Thursday night.
It told passers-by that a "Social" was in progress from 6:45 p.m. to 10 p.m.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)