The routine for Joyce Landers is the same every Tuesday: The 71-year-old packs up snacks and her lucky markers, heads to an old fire station that now houses a senior center and gets ready to try her chances at bingo.
The Arkansas woman sat at her favorite table as usual this week, but it wasn't the same. She knew her chances to win and spend time with her bingo-night friends at the Bald Knob Senior Center were close to ending.
Bald Knob, about an hour northeast of Little Rock, has decided to ban the only bingo operation in town, a move that's the first of its kind since Arkansas legalized charitable gaming six years ago. Religious leaders and residents lobbied the City Council to rid the 3,000-person community of gambling. And the council obliged earlier this month by unanimously voting to ban bingo from the center starting May 1, upsetting Landers and other seniors.
"We don't have nowhere to go and it's an enjoyment for us," said Landers, who lives in Searcy.
The town's bingo ban comes at a time when states have been expanding or considering expanding gambling options amid tough budget times. New casinos, slot machines and other forms of gambling have proliferated across the country as states looked for ways to fill budget holes, even in places that had traditionally shunned it.
The rattle of an older-model bingo machine, decorated with carpet at its base, drowned out all sounds but the thuds of markers hitting tickets during Tuesday's bingo night.
Landers peered up through her bifocals as the numbered bingo balls appeared on a flat-screen television at the front of the room. Before each number was called, she'd already scoured and stamped her two sheets of tickets with a neon-pink marker.
She and her granddaughter Ramsey Wallace, who is pregnant with what will soon be Landers' 28th great-grandchild, usually bring such snacks as Mississippi Mud Cake and Frito Pies. But on Tuesday, Landers pulled a plastic baggie from her custom-made bingo bag that was filled with peppermint and butterscotch candy.
Armed with markers in a variety of colors, the grandmother and granddaughter concentrated on their bingo sheets.
"If I get going too fast, holler," Foye Bates, who was operating the machine and announcing the numbers, told the crowd of more than 20 people.
A nonprofit county program started the bingo nights in late September. But the events have drawn protests. A group of senior center regulars who disapprove of the gambling stopped attending daily activities, Mayor Doyle Wallace said.
Viola Moore, who lives near the center, is among the protesters. "This is a Christian community and we don't go along with certain things," she said. "I was there when we had the (council) meeting and I said `Hallelujah.'"
Her husband, a Baptist preacher, wrote a letter to the council along with other ministers. Mayor Wallace said the opposition has been led by the Rev. Larry Johnson of Pleasant Grove Baptist, a church adjacent to the center. Johnson did not respond to multiple interview requests.
In 2006, Arkansas became one of the last states to legalize charitable gaming. Utah and Hawaii are the only states to prohibit it. Nearly 70 percent of Arkansas voters approved the measure that legalized cash-prize bingo games, with the stipulation that money raised would go to charitable purposes. In White County, home to Bald Knob, the charitable gaming measure garnered nearly 60 percent of the vote.
The resistance that Bald Knob is now seeing among residents is in line with national trends, said Chad Hills, analyst for gambling research with an affiliate of the evangelical Christian group Focus on the Family. The gambling market has been saturated by the allowance of bingo, casinos and lotteries by states, Hills said, and communities are starting to push back. He acknowledged charitable bingo is not as divisive as other forms of gambling, but maintained that many Americans morally object to it.
"I think the growth days are done with gambling," Hills said. "It's an interesting time, Vegas and Atlantic City are gasping for air and the other states are grasping for the nickels and dimes left."
Marcia Pressler, program director with the White County Aging Program, which hosts the bingo nights in Bald Knob, said the ban will hurt seniors most. Bingo nights are a chance for them to get out of the house and mingle, she said, and proceeds from the games help cover expenses for an upcoming seniors trip to Branson, Mo., and other activities.
She plans to meet with Bald Knob City Council members to try to change their minds.
"It really makes me sad that they could take something like (bingo) and make it sound so bad," Pressler said. Some of the seniors also are planning to attend the next council meeting on May 7, she said.
By the end of Tuesday's bingo night, jackpot winner Landers' fingertips matched the neon-pink color of her marker and she was $10 richer. She's not sure what will replace her bingo nights. Maybe crochet, she said.
"I hate to see this be taken away from us," Landers said.
Allen Reed can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/Allen_Reed.