ABINGDON, VA. — Randy Callahan slipped a $5 bill into an E Pull-Tab machine at the Appalachian Events & Gaming Center on Wednesday.
Within seconds, the quick demonstration yielded Callahan $9. It was nothing to get rich on, but he had nearly doubled his money — with almost no effort.
This gaming center — formerly known as the Community Center of Abingdon — relies on 18 of these game machines to pay the bills to the tune of bringing in $250,000 a year, according to Callahan, the organization’s executive director.
“Ours are not skill games. There’s a difference between our games and skill games. And the state delineates skill and luck,” Callahan said of the games of chance located in the Community Center. “And ours are luck.”
“There’s no skill to playing these games,” Callahan said. “It’s simply a game of chance. They’re just like a slot machine. You laid your money in. You punch a button, and you either win, or you don’t.”
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Just like slot machines, they are popular, too.
You can play these games for as little as 25 cents or as much as $5 a shot. The maximum payout on 16 of the machines is $1,000 and $1,500 for two of the newer game machines, Callahan said.
But the payouts vary — depending on how much money you pay to play.
Such games of chance are only allowed in charitable organizations, such as a Moose Lodge or VFW Post, he said.
And they’re regulated.
Virginia state inspectors put a permit on each machine.
“And we have to fill out quarterly reports that we have to submit to Virginia Gaming,” Callahan said. “Virginia Gaming regulates the thing very, very strictly. They will surprise-inspect.”
Statewide, charitable gaming posted a record $1.5 billion in 2021 with $1.28 billion wagered on electronic pull-tab games compared to $235 million for traditional charitable bingo, raffles and paper pull-tabs, according to a 2022 JLARC study.
The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services regulates all charitable gaming in the state.
The fact that Callahan’s machines support a delivered meals program and a center for senior citizens is not typical of their use.
“I’m the last man standing that still has these machines turned on that is not a fraternal order,” he said. “All the rest of them have been turned off. Ours are on because I don’t think the state wants a lawsuit for shutting down Meals on Wheels or senior services.”
If these machines go away, Callahan said, “I’m considering bringing in the skill games, because the state can’t do anything about that. They’re don’t regulate them right now. It’s the same thing, they can’t do anything about them in gas stations, and they can’t do anything in here.”
This center’s charity revolves around feeding hungry patrons by having a place where donated food can be picked up a few days a week — by whoever wants it — with meat, tomatoes, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, and bananas.
The center also delivers meals.
“We ceased to be part of the Meals on Wheels organization for a couple of reasons,” Callahan said. “One, they don’t do anything for you. They just want money to use their name. And, two, I was at a meeting with them and one of their rules is that you must be 65 or older to receive these meals. And I said, ‘What about our vets who are coming back overseas and they’re disabled?’”
Today, the center still uses the name, “Meals on Wheels” but, just as often, goes by “home-delivered meals,” Callahan said. “We’re only using it now until we transfer fully over to the ‘home-delivered meals’ because that’s what people know us as.”
The center serves 87 residents twice a week while another 700 people a week come to the center to pick up food that is put out for whoever needs it a couple days a week.
“We are just trying to help as many people as we can with what we have here,” he said.
The facility is no longer strictly known as a senior center.
“It still is a senior center. We have a senior room back here,” Callahan said. “Our legal name is still under Senior Services Center Inc., But what happens over the years is the seniors don’t financially support the place.”
Callahan took over the organization in 2020, as COVID-19 hit, but soon found the facility could not make money renting its space — due to the pandemic.
“So I sat the board down and told them that we have to start thinking about how to generate an income — or we’ll have to shut the doors. So, I told them about these machines and we brought four or five of them in, just to see how they would do, and it just took off,” he said.
In the first seven months, patrons waged $1 million into the machines, according to Callahan. Of that, the center paid out $750,000. With what was left, the center kept $125,000 and gave the other $125,000 to the company that provides the machines.
The gaming machines help the center pay off its debts and half of the mortgage, he said.
“We changed the name because we wanted people to know what was going on here. We were making money hand over fist until the casino opened,” Callahan said. “This is not like a casino, and that’s what attracts some people. They come in and they like the atmosphere. They like the way it looks. There’s no smoking in here. There’s not a lot of crowds in here. And there are always machines available if somebody wants to get on one.”
These machines and bingo are what paid the bills, Callahan said.
“We always need the county support,” Callahan said. “We’re still getting some minor donations. We don’t get very much.”
“The town cut us off,” Callahan said explaining how the center does not receive any funds from the Town of Abingdon.
Callahan insists the gambling games inside the center are what is needed to keep the doors open.
But that view may have cost the organization support from both Washington County and the Town of Abingdon. Neither municipality gives money to the center.
“They were supporting Meals on Wheels. But the way they’re going about it with the machines, that’s not keeping with what the senior center was,” Washington County Supervisor Dwayne Ball said. “The town didn’t fund it. We just kind of followed suit with them.”
Skill game machines, meanwhile, are scattered across Washington County — in various stores.
Washington County Commissioner of Revenue Mark Matney does not tax the machines at the gaming center, because it is classified as a non-profit charity, but he does tax up to 30 machines as personal property in other locations. He said his staff will on be on the lookout for more.
“Every vendor has to pay vendor personal property on the machine,” Matney said.
“We went to every convenience store. And we went hunting for them. But if they just put them in there this year, we can’t tax them until next year.”