Connie Bartley knows the regular visits she and her sister make to the Par-A-Dice Riverboat Casino are no trips to Las Vegas, but she can dream a bit.

“And I get free dinners, though my husband keeps telling me it’s not free,” Bartley, 68, of Washington, said with a chuckle.

She knows the meals are paid for by “points” she earns from her gaming, but that doesn’t matter. 

What does, “When I get home I feel better,” she said. “I like the lights” and the energy in the East Peoria floating casino’s gaming rooms. “It does something to my brain.”

No video gaming cafe or tavern with slot machines has that ambience, to say nothing about the contests, drawings, restaurants, hotel nights and other perks Par-A-Dice offers to draw players, Bartley said. 

That’s why Bartley, retired after 30 years with Aventine Renewable Energy in Pekin, and thousands like her still choose Par-A-Dice’s energetic buzz over the convenience of a neighborhood bar or cafe for their gambling recreation.

Thousands of others, however, have chosen the latter over the past four years since the state legalized storefront video gaming. 

That, and other factors over the 26 years since riverboat casinos were legalized in Illinois, has knocked the Par-A-Dice down, but not out.

The numbers show that competition from Pekin-Peoria-area cafe and bar machines — at about 4,000 the equivalent of three equal-sized casinos — have hit the boat the hardest.

Between 2012, when storefront gaming became legal, and last year, Par-A-Dice admissions declined 27 percent, according to state-kept reports.

That’s half of the casino’s overall decline between 2001, when admissions were peaking, and 2016, a drop from 1.94 million visits to 885,000 last year.

The casino reported 685 full- and part-time employees last year, 74 fewer than in 2013. That’s produced a 6.4 percent reduction in the casino’s reported wages and salaries paid, $15.56 million last year, over the period.

A spokesman for Boyd Gaming of Las Vegas, which owns Par-A-Dice, put the blame entirely on storefront gaming competition when the casino laid off 40 employees a year ago.

The boat’s gaming revenues, while also down, have taken a lesser hit. While fewer people gamble at Par-A-Dice, they gamble more, from an average of $72 per visit in 2001 to about $97 last year, state reports show.

East Peoria and Peoria split the state-mandated local share of a tax on the casino’s gambling revenue. That share dipped by 22 percent between 2001-2012. The double blow in 2008 of a new state law banning smoking in buildings with public access and the start of the so-called Great Recession hit the casino hard.

But not as hard as the new gaming competition. Tax revenues dropped another 26 percent between 2012-2016.

East Peoria will use its half of last year’s estimated $5.17 million in gaming tax revenues to pay back loans it took out to construct EastSide Centre and install infrastructure for Camp Street development projects, and to repair streets and purchase capital equipment. Similar projects in Peoria await that city’s share.

Local communities collect tax revenue as well from gaming cafes and taverns in their borders. Peoria will receive about $500,000 in storefront-generated revenue from last year and East Peoria about $175,000, the cities’ treasurers said.

Each year since it opened in late 1991, the Par-A-Dice has regularly contributed to dozens of area charities and supported public programs and events, such as the Relay for Life against cancer.

Its business slump hasn’t eroded those commitments, which have generally amounted to $500,000 in each of the past several years.

Still the big dog on the area’s gaming block, Par-A-Dice markets a trip to its complex of gaming machines, tables and restaurants — Boyd’s Steakhouse, Options Buffet and Rocks sports bar — as an event. The casino collects customers on weekly round-trip tour bus routes ranging across central Illinois. Others stay overnight at the Par-A-Dice Hotel, often as a “comp” for their wagering.

“It’s like a mini-vacation,” Bartley said, that she takes with her husband, whose health issues prevent trips to more exotic locals, like Las Vegas. “We can get away for a night.”

After video gaming spread to the streets, Bartley dipped into her gaming budget at a few Washington area taverns. “I found the (machines) were just as tight” at the bars as at the Par-A-Dice, and with no perks to soften the blow when she loses.

She has no plans to abandon the boat.

“No points, no contests, no hotel, and no free food,” she said.

Follow Michael Smothers at Twitter.com/msmotherspekin