Craig Gabel thinks he has got a winner in the bingo business.
First, there’s the location of Liberty Bingo, the 15,000-square-foot, 425-person-capacity bingo hall he opened at Pawnee and Seneca three weeks ago. Gabel says it may be the bingo-craziest corner of town.
Gabel said he has been told that one in five bingo players in Sedgwick County live in the nearby ZIP code areas 67211 and 67217, although he can’t cite the exact source of that information.
Second, there’s the form of bingo exclusively played at Liberty. Instead of typical “sessions” consisting of multiple games and lasting up to three hours, Liberty plays its “mini games” one at a time, each lasting two or three minutes.
That’s convenient, Gable said.
“We have a lot of people go home, make supper for the kids, then come back and play some more,” he said.
Gabel isn’t new to the south side, where he has owned a restaurant, smoke shops, rental properties and free weekly newspapers. He has long been a vocal critic of city officials, whom he accuses of wasting taxpayer money and favoring downtown development at the expense of other parts of town.
“I’ve been a little quiet lately,” said Gabel, who has run unsuccessfully for elected office. “We’re in an uneasy truce.”
Gabel said he became interested in bingo because he knew that nonprofits – by law the only entities authorized to run bingo games in Kansas – “were closing down because the laws were so antiquated they couldn’t make money. I kind of saw an opportunity.”
Gabel said he wrote a bill loosening restrictions on bingo, which a state representative from Hutchinson agreed to submit to the Kansas Legislature. That bill went nowhere, he said, but another passed that exceeded his expectations, removing limitations on how long bingo games can operate and how often mini games can be played.
“I never dreamed we’d open it up so much,” he said. “Kansas is so conservative.”
There are still state limits on payouts for sessions, but because Liberty doesn’t offer sessions, those do not apply, Gabel said.
“It’s hard when you start something totally new,” Gabel said of players’ reactions to the changes. “We’ve got to educate the people. But they like it.
“We’re gaining 20 customers a night. If that trajectory keeps up, we’ll be successful.”
Gabel must still find nonprofits to operate the games, with their volunteers calling out numbers and selling cards. He said he’s currently working with several such groups, including the Wichita Amateur Hockey Parents Association and Oaklawn Community Foundation. Gabel hires people to sell concessions, run his on-premise smoke shop and maintain the place.
After paying out about 75 percent of bingo proceeds to winners, he and the nonprofits split the rest through a lease agreement, while he gets all sales of sodas, cigarettes, burgers and chips.
Located in a former thrift store in Westway Shopping Center, Liberty Bingo is split about evenly by plate glass walls into smoking and non-smoking sections, each with its own video monitors and scoreboards. Both sides play the same games.
For now, Liberty Bingo operates every day of the week except Tuesday, from late afternoon to midnight. However, if he can find more nonprofits with sufficient volunteers, Gabel said, “We can operate 24/7. We’d never have to shut down.”
Now you know
Address: 2445 S. Seneca
Owner: Craig Gabel