Online gaming sites on the chopping block
By TOM CHANG and DREW WINCHESTER
Shirley Coils and Doris Ison have been going to Internet casino cafes for more than 10 years. But, in a matter of a few weeks, those all may be gone.
“It’s one of the few things I can do,” said Ison, who’s legally blind.
Florida House Bill 155 and Senate Bill 1030 will prohibit the use of electronic gambling devices, which effectively will shut down area Internet casino cafes.
HB 155 passed by a vote of 108 to seven Friday, while SB 1030 is expected to be voted on by the end of the month.
“There are up to 1,000 such cafes in Florida,” said Mike Wolfe, an attorney with the Florida Arcade Association.
Coils said the Internet cafes are not doing anyone any harm.
“It gives us something to do,” Coils said. “If you want to be a pig and spend your Social Security, that’s up to you. We have our limits.”
Terry Heverly, a retired Englewood resident, has been going to Internet cafes for two years.
“I hope they don’t close them down,” he said. “It gives me something to do. It’s entertaining. I go about four to five times a week, and stay two to three hours on average.”
Cafe owners in Englewood and Port Charlotte declined to comment for this story.
North Port resident Chad Schuler and his family barely survived the housing meltdown, refocusing what money they had left from their construction business into an “amusement arcade,” where patrons receive prizes for playing “games of skill.”
But Schuler said they’re now in danger of losing King’s Club, their Port Charlotte-based establishment, if these new laws take effect, putting his family back in the government’s crosshairs.
Schuler said the state is discriminating against businesses like his, by lumping them in with “Internet cafes,” that provide “sweepstakes” winnings, but don’t pay the same kinds of above-the-board taxes as arcade owners do.
Schuler pointed to the recent debacle involving former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll and Allied Veterans of the World, an Internet sweepstakes cafe operator now at the center of an intensive investigation that forced Carroll to resign.
“Someone got caught with their hand in the cookie jar, and now they’re running from it and throwing everyone under the bus,” Schuler said. “They’re accusing us honest people of being crooks and taking advantage of others, while we weren’t the ones robbing people blind.”
Likewise, owners of Spin Depot, another arcade establishment located on Sumter Crossing Drive in North Port, think it’s unfortunate that arcades are being placed side-by-side with sweepstakes cafes, adding that there likely are some sweepstakes cafes that are operating legally.
They’d like to see the state take a regulation approach to the industry, they said, instead of the elimination approach legislators seem to be headed toward now.
Meanwhile, Schuler said arcade-style establishments are a benefit to the community, offering cheap, affordable and safe alternative entertainment for seniors.
Schuler added that King’s Club has not made him or his family rich, but instead provides a simple way of life for them.
“We’re not driving Maseratis and buying mansions, we’re just making a living and providing a service to the community,” he said.
Time for ‘clarification’
For public officials and law enforcement, the cafes have been operating in a gray area for too long.
“Those places appear to be very robust,” said Ed Brodsky, state attorney for the 12th Judicial Circuit. “A lot of people seem to enjoy it. As far as a legal and a law enforcement perspective, I’m happy there’s finally clarification. When you speak to different agencies, you get a mix of reactions. Some law enforcement agencies and commissioners are complaining.”
Brodsky said he knows there’s a swift motion to ban the cafes.
“I think some people feel there’s a double standard,” Brodsky said. “We will wait and see. I think you’ll see stronger enforcement if this passes. Some may go underground, but the places you see out in the open will disappear if (the measures are) passed. Law enforcement’s been in a state of flux over this.”
Wendy Rose, spokeswoman for the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, said the SCSO hasn’t received any complaints about the facilities, and is waiting on legislators to clarify.
There was no comment from the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office.
Not a new issue
State Rep. Doug Holder, R-Osprey, said the issue has been discussed for two years, but the incident involving Carroll may have nudged the process along.
“The issue (came to a head) when it became public last week. I think the integrity of the people involved had to do with it,” he said.
Holder said payouts define the difference between casinos like the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Tampa and “casinos in a box.”
“If you go to places like Seminole Hard Rock, the payouts are 85 (percent) to 90 percent,” he said. “The Internet cafe payouts are at 5 (percent) to 10 percent. We didn’t know how prolific (the problem) was. Attention was drawn to it. … Several of them (that) are not affiliated with Allied Veterans are operating with the same payout.”
Holder said he fully supports the ban, and that will not affect regulated facilities like the Seminole Hard Rock Casino or racetracks.
“The cafes are akin to a pyramid scam,” Holder said. “It’s all computer-generated — of a game of skill. It’s all a game of chance.”
Holder said the legislators don’t want to harm veterans groups in regard to charitable donations, and the bill affects only adult arcades and Internet cafes.
For more information about HB 155, go to http://www.myfloridahouse.gov/Sections/Bills/bills detail.aspx?BillId=49372.