To Mainers facing the growing housing crisis and a spate of divisive Supreme Court decisions, retro arcades may be little more than quaint distractions from the problems of the real world. But thanks to a recently rediscovered ordinance, Freeport still regulates coin-operated games the same way it did generations ago, when worried parents and politicians feared pinball would lead to moral decay.

On July 5, the Freeport Town Council will consider changing its “pinball and video machine ordinance,” which requires business owners to apply for a license and pay a $100 fee annually for each coin-operated game they maintain. Owners without “proof of good moral character” — namely, those who have been convicted of felonies — can be denied licenses.

The town likely adopted the policy, which town staff uncovered last fall, between 30 and 50 years ago, according to Town Manager Peter Joseph.

“That was kind of the perception in the ’70s and ’80s,” Joseph said. “You know, there were smoky backroom pinball gambling lairs where some mysterious shrouded man was corrupting the youth of America.”

Freeport was far from the only town worried about the dangers of pinball, according to John Reuter, co-founder of the New England Pinball Championship and an avid piball collector. Modern players, who spend thousands of dollars buying classic machines like “The Addams Family,” “Evel Kineval” and “Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure,” can still recount the story of New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s successful campaign to ban the game in the 1940s, a prohibition that stood in the metropolis for over 30 years.

“Believe it or not, in various places, pinballs could be and sometimes were used as gambling devices,” Reuter said. “But I don’t think it was a big problem. It was really moral crusading.”


As bans started to come off the books in the 1970s, pinball thrived for a time before the economics of the game crashed, according to Reuter. While inflation pushed up the cost of maintaining the delicate machines, customers refused to pay more than the traditional price of $.25 per game. Once a staple at laundromats, bars and movie theaters, pinball machines all but disappeared from public spaces during the 1990s and 2000s.

For decades, the game remained the sole province of enthusiasts like Reuter, who has invented popular tournament formats used around the world. But recently pinball has found its second wind, as bar owners have realized that the machines don’t need to be profitable – they just need to attract customers willing to buy a few craft beers.

“Now every decent-sized city in America has multiple barcades,” Reuter said. “It’s going crazy, and there’s that’s what’s bringing the younger generation in. It’s pretty awesome.”

No pinball machines or coin-operated video games are currently licensed in Freeport, and town staff only discovered the longstanding ordinance last year when a business owner approached the town about opening a retro arcade, Joseph said. While unrelated factors scuttled the project, Joseph’s staff realized the policy’s licensing fees would have been a significant burden; an arcade with 100 pinball machines and video game systems would cost $10,000 each year in fees.

Eliminating the pinball ordinance is part of a larger effort to make Freeport friendlier to business owners by removing redundant fees and paperwork, according to Joseph. The town no longer requires businesses that serve food to acquire victualer’s licenses, and the Town Council may soon vote to allow alcohol-serving establishments to host live entertainment without obtaining $125 “special amusement permits.”

While these changes may slightly cut into the town’s revenue, they can also help make Freeport a destination for experience-seekers, said Tawni Whitney, executive director of the Freeport Chamber of Commerce.

“The town of Freeport is really listening right now to businesses and trying to make things happen and trying to make them happen quickly,” Whitney said. “It’s so well positioned to be open to change.”

In the case of pinball, that change is a long time coming. Joseph said he doesn’t expect to hear much opposition from the public that could sway the Town Council to keep the ordinance on July 5.

“I don’t think that there’s anybody out there that’s concerned…unless they were involved in some, you know, secret pinball gambling conspiracy in the 1950s,” he joked. “I’m hoping this is a no-brainer.”

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