Sounding an alarm at the declining revenues his church receives from bingo, a Town of Tonawanda priest is proposing that churches and community groups pool their efforts to compete with Canadian and Indian bingo games.
Monsignor Richard A. Graeber's idea calls for several churches and community groups like fire companies to buy or rent a common hall, where they would rotate bingo games. He also wants to raise the stakes to $3,500, from the present $1,000.
Monsignor Graeber has some significant backing from a state legislator in Queens and Buffalo Common Council members for an experiment on the Niagara Frontier.
Monsignor Graeber noted that Bishop Edward D. Head is aware of his efforts and has indicated that proposed changes are acceptable to him if other parishes agree.
"He (the bishop) has not endorsed the plan, nor has he opposed it," he said.
The proposed change not only would mean bigger prizes for players, but also would eliminate competition among sponsoring organizations in the same neighborhoods, said Monsignor Graeber, pastor of St. Andrew's Catholic Church at 1525 Sheridan Drive.
To prove the idea would benefit bingo sponsors statewide, Monsignor Graeber is seeking a two-year demonstration project of "common hall" bingo for Erie and Niagara counties. He hopes to gain the needed state legislation sometime next year.
The priest has scheduled discussion meetings at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday and 7:30 p.m. next Wednesday in his church hall. The meetings will be open to priests in Niagara and Erie counties whose parishes run bingo games and to representatives of other organizations that are licensed to sponsor bingo games.
Assemblyman Ivan C. Lafayette, D- Queens, chairman of the Assembly Standing Committee on Racing and Wagering, said Tuesday he is prepared to support a demonstration project for the Niagara Frontier, if the idea is agreeable to area legislators.
"Because of the competition from Canada and the Indian reservations in Western New York, I think an experiment is warranted, and I don't think $3,500 is too large a number," he said.
While no official figures are available on the number of dollars Americans spend playing bingo in the four halls in Fort Erie, Ont., the estimates are staggering.
Buffalo Council Member at Large Rosemarie LoTempio said data provided by Fort Erie operators puts the figure at about $65,000 a day or $23.7 million a year. Susan L. Grant, a North Tonawanda resident who has been working on the bingo project with Monsignor Graeber, said estimates based on information provided by sponsors of Fort Erie games indicate that Americans spend as much as $50 million a year on Canadian bingo.
The four halls in Fort Erie run 20 to 37 bingo events, a set of games, weekly.
In bingo, a "common hall" is a building used exclusively for playing the games. It can hold two, three or four times as many players as a church or fire hall where bingo usually is played. It could be leased or jointly owned by several game sponsors, with each running at least one bingo event each week.
Under a proposed schedule prepared by Monsignor Graeber, a common hall might hold three to six games daily. His suggested Saturday schedule, for instance, would consist of 10 a.m. "breakfast bingo," two afternoon games, two evening games and a "moonlight bingo" at 11:15 p.m.
The attraction, in addition to the variety of times and frequency of games, would be that bingo prizes totaling $3,500, the amount currently offered at Canadian halls, would be awarded during each event.
The prize limit now is $1,000 for each bingo event sponsored by a church, fraternal group, volunteer fire company or other non-profit group. That has not been changed since bingo was made legal through a constitutional amendment in 1957.
"Canadian bingo is taking a lot of bingo money out of my district," said Niagara District Council Member Joel A. Giambra, who noted that the American end of the Peace Bridge is located in his district.
He and Ms. LoTempio, who unsuccessfully sought Council support about six years ago for an increase in prize money, are working on the bingo issue. Both favor the increase, but Giambra said he is not yet sold on the "common hall" idea.
Monsignor Graeber stressed that during the demonstration period, the prize money and admission price would be increased only at the common halls. He suggests that four common halls be set up, one in downtown Buffalo, one in Niagara Falls with the sites of the other two to be determined.
For organizations that now sponsor bingo games, their operations and their $1,000 total prize limit would not change during the two-year demonstration period unless they became participants in the experiment, he said.
Monsignor Graeber has become the champion of updated bingo because his parish needs more revenue to operate its 700-student elementary school.
"We run four bingo games a week, and our license specifies that every penny of the revenue -- $145,000 last year -- goes to the school budget," he said.
But that revenue has been decreasing by about $7,000 a year, and Monsignor Graeber believes the reason is competition from Fort Erie. Because the revenue has been dropping, bingo, which once provided 33 percent of the school budget, now provides only 25 percent.
He estimates that the one game a week in the common hall would raise the parish's bingo revenue by about $35,000 a year, to the $180,000 it was five years ago.