A Goodyear boxing legend is looking to help foster youth knock out problems — outside the ring.
His approach is more of a hook than a straight cross: Digital bingo.
On Oct. 7, Goodyear City Council approved a Class B Bingo License at 120 East Western Avenue.
It may not sound terribly interesting until looking at the fine print from the council action report: “The applicant is proposing digital bingo games which differs from the standard assembly use.”
Indeed, this isn’t the typical church-hall bingo.
“This is new stuff — slot machine video bingo,” said former professional-boxer-turned businessman Sonny Gutierrez. He owns the 3,000 square-foot building, soon transforming into a digital bingo hall.
This is a fast-growing trend, according to industry tracker Gaming Post: “The digital revolution has taken the casino industry by storm and opting in means adapting and long-term survival. This is true across the board and playing field, even for a game like bingo, traditionally played at large get-togethers in gaming halls.”
The building off Litchfield Road that will be the new home of digital bingo was previously a police evidence center and originally a bank.
Two doors down from Sonny’s Boxing Gym, next to Sonny’s Old Town Barber Shop, will be Sonny’s Old Town Bingo Hall.
Gutierrez is excited about the new venture — benefiting Opportunity Community and Justice for Kids (OCJ), a faith-based, nonprofit organization founded in 1992, to address the Valley’s growing “unsupervised” and “most vulnerable” youth (ages 12-18). OCJ’s aim is to help youth who are “tempted by negative influences, including gangs, drugs and violent behavior.”
According to the city council report, “OCJ Kids will use the net proceeds from games of bingo to support foster children and the Department of Child Safety throughout Arizona by providing: emergency removal resources, transitional resources, mentors/life coaches and seasonal outreach events.”
The nonprofit connected helped sail the bingo license, submitted Sept. 9, through a unanimous council approval.
“We already have one bingo parlor,” said councilman Brannon Hampton, alluding to Community Bingo on Estrella Parkway. “I didn’t see any issues with having another one, especially since it’s going to charity.”
OCJ Kids said it wasn’t possible, without Goodyear’s admired boxer.
“Sonny’s nice enough to donate the space to the charity,” said Craig Katzowsky, an OCJ board member. When Katzowsky began training at Sonny’s gym, he introduced Gutierrez to OCJ Kids.
Katzowsky notes the digital bingo devices shouldn’t be called “machines,” but bingo technology aided devices, or BTA’s.
“Some places have a few BTA’s added on, but this will be Arizona’s first independent BTA terminal-only business,” said Katzowsky.
Gary Webb, president and founder of OCJ Kids, said he is impressed with the city of Goodyear’s reception.
“They’ve been fantastic,” Webb said. “They know Sonny very well, and they’ve been very accommodating and helpful.”
Gutierrez notes the new bingo hall will be for ages 18 and older. He expects patrons to be a mix of young and older adults, looking for a fun activity.
Webb has been told this could be a great revenue stream for OCJ Kids.
“The potential (for OCJ Kids) could be as high as $4,000 a week, or as little as $500 a week,” Webb said.
The proceeds will be put to good use, he said, primarily for what OCJ Kids calls “trunk kits”: a box filled with pajamas, wipes, diapers, lice treatment, hygiene products and gift cards.
When the Department of Child Services finds a home where a child is endangered, they call organizations like OCJ Kids to assist.
“We’ve come in (to homes) and seen one kid with a paper towel taped to his body instead of a diaper, another with no diaper at all and another who had the same diaper on for four or five days,” Webb said.
OCJ Kids, located in north Phoenix, also provides transition kits (air mattress, bus pass, shower curtain, gift cards) for those who “age out” of foster care when they turn 18.
It’s important for those 18-year-olds to find quick stability, Webb stressed: “There’s a 67% failure rate ... in prison or homeless within a year.”
OCJ Kids is experienced in hosting big events and fundraisers, with Thanksgiving and Christmas parties for the foster kids every year.
Digital bingo is uncharted territory for this nonprofit.
“We’ve never done anything like this before,” Webb said. “We’re learning as we go along.”
Now that the city of Goodyear gave the green light, Webb and OCJ Kids move on to the state level, where they anticipate approval soon.
“We’re hoping for a soft opening the first or second week of November,” Webb said.
With Sonny Guiterrez as the cornerman, Webb is hoping digital bingo and Goodyear will be the right combination for helping foster kids.
For more information, see ocjkids.org or follow Sonny’s Boxing Gym on Facebook.