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Bibb commissioner proposes distance restrictions on coin-operated gambling machines

If a business is found operating a COAM within the restricted area, they could get fined at least $500 per day, according to the proposal.

MACON, Ga. — Commissioner Virgil Watkins is proposing tighter restrictions on stores with coin-operated gambling machines. Macon-Bibb County commissioners are set to discuss the issue Tuesday. 

If commissioners approve the proposed ordinance, coin-operated amusement machines (COAMs) cannot be located within 100 yards of any church, public library, county recreation center, alcoholic treatment center, and housing authority property and 200 yards from any school or college campus. 

The proposed ordinance also says businesses can't have these machines within 1,500 feet of any liquor store and 2,500 feet of any small box discount store, also known as a "vice mart." These are small convenience stores that don't have fuel or fresh food and only have alcohol and packaged snacks. 

Watkins says there is a grandfather clause built into the ordinance, so businesses that already have these machines within these distances are allowed to operate. However, a business would not be allowed to have a COAM if they are within the restricted areas and if they apply for a new license or changes ownership after December 15. 

If a business is found operating a COAM within the restricted area, they could get fined at least $500 per day, according to the proposal. 

"I think a lot of folks in leadership, myself, the county commission, the mayor, also planning and zoning, all have taken note that things going on with COAM industry and convenience stores is a bit out of hand in our community. We're trying to provide regulation and oversight to raise more accountability to the industry with the idea to help our citizens live better lives."

Watkins' pitch to commissioners comes after a push from state and county leaders to increase regulations on COAM machines and the gambling industry. 

In October, code enforcement officers visited all 163 Macon locations with coin-operated amusement machines, licensed through the Georgia Lottery Corporation. Citations were written at 70 locations for a total of 143 extra machines. All businesses cited were in violation of Macon-Bibb County ordinance which limits businesses to six machines per location. Georgia law allows for nine Class B gaming machines per location.

Watkins says stores with COAMs are concentrated primarily in low-income neighborhoods. "I think it's intentional," Watkins said in October. "Gambling is highly-addictive and typically prey on folks that are low-income and looking for hope and opportunities. I think a lot of the gas stations are opening up all for the purposes of putting in these machines."