ENGLEWOOD — For people like John Eikanger, Jason Honea, Tricia Murray and other Internet café and adult arcade owners locally and across the state, the Florida Senate has struck a blow that could shut down their businesses as soon as this week. Their fate is now in the hands of Gov. Rick Scott.
“People are very anxious,” said Terri Anders, manager of the Island Oasis Arcade Club in Venice, which Eikanger owns. “They don’t know what’s going on.”
The state Senate voted 34-6 in favor of the ban outlined in Senate Bill 1030 Thursday, following the Florida House’s 108-7 vote March 22. The bill is on its way to Scott for his signature on Tuesday. If signed, it effectively would shutter an estimated 16 gaming establishments operating in Charlotte County, about 17 in Sarasota County, and hundreds across the state — putting thousands out of work.
Mike Wolfe, an attorney with the Florida Arcade Association, said there are at least 1,000 Internet cafés in Florida, according to a previous Sun report. The actual numbers of businesses and people affected locally is hard to pinpoint, as some already have closed down, and others aren’t listed in county documentation.
Honea, who lives in Sarasota, owns four Internet cafés — Lil Vegas in Venice, Lucky Ducky and Lucky Shamrock in Sarasota, and Players Club is Osprey.
He says his employees’ jobs are in jeopardy.
“I heard about 15,000 jobs will be lost if the governor signs (the bill),” Honea said. “If he does, the 20 employees from my businesses will be out of work. I don’t know what I’ll do if it happens.”
A knee-jerk reaction?
The cafés came under heavy scrutiny following the scandal involving former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll and Allied Veterans of the World, an Internet sweepstakes café operator now at the center of an intensive investigation that led to Carroll’s resignation.
Lorie Cormier is a longtime employee of Spin Depot in North Port. She said she believes the ban on Internet cafés is a “knee-jerk reaction” to the scandal.
“They investigated and found that group wasn’t paying their portion to the state,” Cormier said. “That’s not all of us, though. We are registered with the state, and pay taxes to the city and state. How are the lawmakers going to make up for that if they shut us all down?”
Cormier said something else lawmakers aren’t realizing is how much establishments such as Spin Depot invest back into the community.
“We buy $25 gift cards from Publix, Winn-Dixie, Sam’s, TGI Friday’s, Family Table, Sharks and other local businesses every week,” she said. “We don’t pay out in cash. Our prizes are gift certificates.”
At least one owner is not taking the impending ban sitting down. Murray, an owner of Kings Club Casino in Port Charlotte, staged a protest Friday night in front of the Charlotte Harbor Event and Conference Center in Punta Gorda, where Scott attended the Charlotte County Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Day Dinner.
About a dozen protesters joined her, holding signs expressing opposition to the legislation, which Murray said should not include amusement arcades because, unlike “Internet cafés,” they don’t pay cash to winners.
Also, “we don’t claim to be nonprofits,” she said.
“Last year, (businesses like ours) paid $14 million in sales taxes,” Murray said. “It will be lost revenue if we’re shut down.”
If the establishments close, people like Anders, who lives off her wages from the arcade and her husband’s Social Security, will be hit hardest.
“His Social Security is minimal,” Anders said. “I have to work here to sustain us.”
Anders said she doesn’t know what she’ll do if the business goes under.
“Finding a job isn’t easy here in Florida,” she said.
Just for fun
Anders said the businesses operate similar to arcade establishments like Chuck E. Cheese’s and Dave & Busters.
“Most (critics) don’t understand how we operate when we just give out gift cards,” she said. “They come here for $20, and talk with their friends and socialize.”
If Scott signs the bill, many people would have to give up one of their favorite pastimes.
“My wife and I love to go to arcades,” said John Quayle, who frequents Murray’s business. “It’s a form of entertainment.”
He added that he rarely spends more than $20, about as much as going out for a couple of drinks.
Bill Crowley of Nokomis said he has been going to the Island Oasis in Venice for seven years.
“I think they’ve had these ‘Chuck E. Cheese’ laws for six to seven years, and it branched out to the arcades,” he said of legislation that allows people to play games with an “application of skill” to receive credits redeemable for non-cash prizes. “Since they put it in, they had every opportunity to regulate them. It gives people something to do. It’s a terrible thing to take away because a few people ruined it for everybody.”
Honea said he heard claims from the Senate floor that the Internet café and adult arcade businesses refused regulation.
“I’ve talked to people from all over the industry in the area,” Honea said. “We all want to be regulated and pay taxes for what we do.”
To voice your opinion on the proposed ban, contact the governor’s office at 850-488-7146, or visit http://www.flgov.com/sunburst.
Staff writers Elaine Allen-Emrich and Greg Martin contributed to this report.