r.i.p. oregon taverns
Rest in Peace Oregon Taverns
For two decades now, I have explored Oregon’s taverns, with their local owners, misfit regulars, double negatives, weddings, wakes, smoke, eccentric décor, and the stories that family-friendly brewpubs couldn’t match in a millennium of operation. And of course, let me not forget to mention the pickled grotesqueries displayed in jars that people actually eat.
I love these taverns, so much in fact, that six years ago I began writing about the ones on the Oregon Coast where I live. This literary endeavor recently concluded after nearly 60 reviews appeared in a coastal magazine column called “Let it Pour.” After all this exploration, doubtless I am an expert on Oregon taverns. Thus, it is with sadness that I declare the unique cultural institution of the independent Oregon tavern is dead.
The state of Oregon seriously wounded it with video poker, and more recently with the introduction of line games, (slots) killed it altogether.
In 1984 voters (including me) overwhelmingly approved an initiative creating the Oregon Lottery with all proceeds dedicated to ‘economic development.’ State-sponsored gambling was to prime the pump, slightly, through penny-ante games like Scratch-its, Breakopens and Sports Action.
That all changed in 1991 when the Oregon Legislature directed the Oregon Lottery to allow video poker in taverns and bars to eliminate the estimated 10,000 illegal machines operating across the state. I clearly recall being in a tavern when legal video poker machines went on line—it was a frenzy—and it didn’t take long for video poker revenues to constitute almost 80 percent of the entire Oregon Lottery earnings.
Video poker revenue poured in by the millions, and in 1995, and then 1998, voters approved changes that allowed these funds to be spent on K-12 education and then salmon habitat restoration/state parks. In other words, the Oregon Lottery shifted away from its original mission of spurring economic development to helping fund state services.
Then in 2005, line games were introduced into Oregon’s taverns and bars and ask anyone who frequents these places and they will tell you straight up: the slots are hot. How hot? The latest figures I’ve read report that the state will see an unexpected $60 million in revenue from the new line games, which adds to the nearly $2 billion generated by video poker since 1992.
Sure, the pool and darts continue, but these taverns are not the same, and I know because I drank beer in them before they were enlisted by the state to raise revenue from the pockets of vulnerable, occasionally inebriated people.
What is especially sad is to have witnessed how video poker slowly transformed taverns from gritty bastions of independence into de facto tax collectors for the state and just another greedy special interest group that lobbies to keep its average $76,000 per year earned through its cut of the take.
I could write a treatise on the immorality and political cowardice of paying for essential public services through state sponsored gambling, or as is the case in this state, the ongoing expansion of state-sponsored gambling. But space limits me here. Instead, let me offer a vignette that also serves as a perfect visual illustration for the death of the Oregon tavern:
Not too long ago, my companion and I observed a middle-aged man push an elderly woman in a wheelchair into a Tillamook tavern on a Saturday afternoon. He seemed frail and she wore an oxygen mask. He wheeled her past the bar and into the gaming area where they started playing, slots I think. I watched them for 15 minutes until I left, and they never ordered a beverage, or said a word to anyone, or each other.
Rest in peace Oregon tavern.
Matt Love lives at the Oregon Coast and can be reached at email@example.com. A web site containing many of his tavern reviews can be found at www.letitpour.net