Proposed bill would shutter Internet cafes
Internet cafe has a sign that reads "Come Win Big on the $5,000 J.P. (jackpot)" and tinted windows that read "Sweepstakes" in jumbo letters.
Other Internet cafes in Leon County have less eye-catching signs. Yet residents are finding their way inside.
At the Allied Veterans .53 Internet Center on West Tennessee Street, for example, a large dry-erase board reads "Hump Day Give-Away every Wednesday." Free popcorn and soft drinks are offered to adults seated at computer terminals showing colorful spinning games. Ding sounds echo in the room of 80 terminals.
Some lawmakers, such as State Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, are saying the cafes are big business, and cafe owners are exploiting a loophole in the state's gambling law. However, cafe operators and residents who go to them say they're not doing anything wrong.
Plakon is proposing a bill to eliminate all Internet cafes, including two dozen in Leon County.
Plakon said Internet cafes are a new form of "convenience gambling," making them a potential threat to communities across the state. In some cases, he said cafes allow people to retrieve cash from electronic-benefit-transfer cards, which are meant for public assistance such as food stamps.
"I was shocked," he said. "I think it's a fair statement that at least some of these public-assistance dollars are being gambled away, and I think that's a societal problem, especially in a time of scarce tax dollars."
According to the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling, its hotline is receiving an increased number of calls as a result of Internet cafes.
From July 1, 2009, to Dec. 31, 2010, the hotline received 115 calls. A report, representing 26 counties, said the average debt owed due to activity at cafes was approximately $19,900, and the average amount lost was $40,460.
At the local Allied Veterans Internet Center, those who walk in receive 100 free tries at a sweepstakes prize. What people pay for is the Internet time; they can surf online if they wish. In order to play the sweepstakes, residents must be in the cafes and computer software alerts them on the spot if they've won.
Internet access time" and they understand no purchase is necessary to enter the sweepstakes.
Jerry Bass, president of Allied Veterans Affiliate .53 and national commander of Allied Veterans of the World, strongly disagrees with opponents who say Internet cafes are a store-front for gambling.
He said gambling is not taking place since three elements must be present in order to establish gambling: consideration or a price to pay; the chance to win or lose; and a prize.
Bass said people are not required to pay to play in the sweepstakes games.
"If you take away any one of these three elements, it's not gambling," said Bass, who is not opposed to seeing statewide regulation — but not elimination — of Internet cafes. "Since there is no cost, there is no gambling by law ... It really doesn't matter what I think because the law is pretty clear.
"I don't think we are doing anything we should be ashamed of," he added.
The concern about Internet cafes is growing in Tallahassee just as fast as they are popping up.
Just a year ago, Leon County had two such cafes. There are now 17 in the city limits. The county doesn't have a tracking system in place, such as issuing permits, like the city does. So officials drive around and count them.
They are in strip malls and other areas on Kerry Forest Parkway, Fred George Road, West Tennessee Street and Crawfordville and Woodville highways, to name some of the high-visible spots where Internet cafes have come to life.
Lt. Roy Robbins of the Criminal Investigation Department at Leon County Sheriff's Office said he has concerns about local cafes, including the clientele they attract. He also said a weakened economy makes them tempting to people who want to "win big."
"A lot of people don't see these things as being bad. It's the perception to us that it is gambling," Robbins said. "We are choosing to wait to see if the Legislature will give us some clarification on which way to go."
Since 2007, Ivey said, 4,106 game-promotion registrations were filed. In addition, Ivey said there could be multiple game promotions at a single Internet cafe site.
"If an Internet cafe has 20 terminals in the business, and they offer a prize more than $5,000 at each terminal," Ivey said, "all 20 terminals would have a registration on file with us. There would not be one registration for the business that covers all 20 terminals."
Each cafe is different. Some are more high-tech — larger with more monitors; others are on the low end. Some give a portion of the money they make to charity. For example, Dino's gives to the Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare Foundation. Allied Veterans, which Jacksonville City Councilman Kevin Hyde calls "the Wal-Mart" of Florida's Internet cafe industry, has given more than $5 million to help veterans.
A coalition of five major Internet cafe owners and software providers — World Touch Gaming Inc.; PhoneSweeps; Hest Technologies Inc.; Arcola Systems of Florida and Allied Veterans — are lobbying lawmakers in an effort to remain open. Each owns or operates between 20 and 130 locations in Florida.
Leon County commissioners, with the exception of Bryan Desloge and Kristin Dozier, want to hold off on creating a local ordinance that would ban or regulate Internet cafes. They want to monitor litigation unfolding in Seminole County and see if any state laws are made.
Some Florida cities have taken a stance.
Jacksonville passed an ordinance last year that put zoning and operational restrictions in place for 53 Internet cafes that exist and future ones. Those restrictions include a $2,500 permit fee per gaming machine, which may help the city reach its goal of having only 20 cafes if owners can't afford the fee. Other measures include 24-hour security, and new cafes can't be built within a certain distance of churches and schools.
Hyde proposed the ordinance. He contends Internet cafes are a legal operation, but there is a "fine line" between what people know to be gambling and the sweepstakes format used in Internet cafes.
Although Jacksonville wasn't able to ban existing cafes, Hyde said smaller cities in Duval County have put bans on them since they didn't have any existing cafes. He said counties like Leon shouldn't wait to take action to address or regulate the cafes.
"If we start squeezing them here, they are going to go to another area," Hyde said.
While the battle over Internet cafes continues, residents like Jacqueline Hudson are not going to stop going to them.
"Everything is a gamble and chance," said the 50-year-old, who goes to the Allied Veterans site on Tennessee Street once a week. "This is fun ... I don't see it as gambling."
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