Gail Johnson and Althea Ruffin have owned and run La Pazza in the West Ward for about seven years.
A staple in the neighborhood, the small bar caters to an unassuming clientele who come not only to eat and drink, but for the comraderie and community the tavern offers.
But Johnson and Ruffin say recent regulations, such as smoking bans, and the economic downturn have made it harder for neighborhood taverns to stay afloat. The proliferation of chains and a sluggish economy has only made it harder for establishments like theirs.
“I haven't raised my prices in four or five years. It hurts. But people just don't have the money,” Johnson said in an interview earlier this week.
That's why they're working with other local bar owners in support of new bills that would allow small games of chance in taverns. Ruffin and Johnson say the changes would help smaller taverns compete and allow them to give back more to the communities they serve, the owners of La Pazza say.
“I'd like to see it because of course we'd like to see the extra money,” Johnson said. “I'd really like the opportunity to give back to charity. We don't make enough to do that right now.”
“It's important for a bar to be part of the community,” she added.
The proposed State House Bill 906 and its counterpart, State Senate Bill 731, would allow small taverns to obtain a license to operate small games of chance, similar to the ones allowed to non-profit organizations presently.
While non-profits keep the proceeds of their games, the tavern owners would be required to give 30 percent of the proceeds back to the state's general fund. An additional 20 percent would go to a charitable organization of the tavern's choice. Two percent would be used to pay for the administrative costs of the program and enforcement of the terms.
The tavern owner would keep the remaining 48 percent.
Johnson and Ruffin say the program could be used to fund local programs that are in danger of cuts, such as Easton's Main Street program, Weed and Seed and an Elm Street program. .
“We live here in the West Ward, and we all have to pull together on this,” Ruffin said.
La Pazza has already begun recruiting other taverns and businesses. Considering how many taverns there are in Easton, the money could add up, they say.
The Pennsylvania Tavern Association estimates of what the program could provide statewide add up to as much as $100 million.
The program would also keep money local that otherwise would have been spent outside the city, and help neighborhood establishments that have lost business since the Sands in Bethlehem opened, they said.
Local establishments are more likely to take of customers rather than take advantage of them, Ruffin added.
“As people have less money, perhaps a 75 cent beer and a small game of chance can satisfy what they can't afford at the Sands,” she said.“Am I going to let you spend $300 you don't have when I have to look you in the face tomorrow?”
“When you're part of the community, you have a responsibility,” Johnson added.
Curbing Illegal Gambling?
Amy Christie, executive director of the Pennsylvania Tavern Association, which favors the laws passage, said in addition to providing revenue for small businesses, the change would help clean up illegal club gaming.
“It would bring everything above board,” Christie said. “I could show you stuff that would blow your mind.”
Private clubs sometimes run illegal games or go over the current limit of $5,000 per week, but there is little way of knowing, she said.
“There's no accounting. There's nothing,” she said.
The changes to the law would add a provision for monitoring small games of chance for all licensees.
She added that the bill is self-contained and the program would pay for itself.
“It actually costs the state not one penny,” she said. “It's really a win-win.”
But veterans groups and others whose club organizations depend on the games are opposed to the proposed law change despite the fact the law would raise the limit of what they could raise from $5,000 to $20,000 per week. The groups represent a powerful political lobby, Christie added.
In an interview last year with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Thomas Helsel of the Pennsylvania Association of Nationally Chartered Organizations said he doesn't think social clubs should have to compete with taverns.
"Right off the bat, they have the world of anyone over 21 who can walk in," Heisel told the paper.
State Representative Robert Freeman (D-136) said he wants to hear more about the bill and from constituents before he makes a decision on how he will vote.
“I want to hear more from both the proponents and opposition to this bill,” he said, adding that since the bill has not come before any of the committees he sits on, he is only preliminarily familiar with the issue.
Still, Freeman said he might be convinced.
“Those respectable hangouts are a great way to stabilize a neighborhood,” he said. “I'm anxious to sit down and hear what the owners have to say.”
The bill is currently waiting for the state House gaming oversight committee to review it. It is expected the bill will probably come before the general assembly for a vote later this year, likely in the fall. A similar set of bills died in committee before coming to vote last year.
In the mean time, Ruffin and Johnson have been recruiting other local establishments to their cause. Ashley's and the newly opened Pickled Egg have expressed interest, they say, and will be assisting in a petition campaign. Others are being approached, and they hope to garner more support in the coming weeks.
“They don't want people to drink and drive. If the neighborhood bars close, there's no choice,” Johnson said. “They give licenses to Applebee's and others not in the community, who don't care about the community.”
“They don't have a stake in the community,” she added. “We do.”