Brook Park OH Internet Cafes' In Full Swing
Brook Park last month became the latest local community to approve rules for "Internet sweepstakes cafes," which operators say don't cross the thin legal line from gaming into state-regulated gambling. A judge in Toledo has agreed.
Usually open in former shops and restaurants, the businesses offer a variety of computer-based services that include faxing and copying. But they mainly operate by selling prepaid phone cards.
Customers use the cards to play online computer games that look like video slots. They play to win more Internet time and points that have no cash value but give them chances in sweepstakes where they can win money. Because the sweepstakes have a pre-determined outcome, similar to scratch-off lottery games, they are legal in Ohio.
Garfield Heights will soon get its second such operation, at the back of the Turneytown Shopping Center. Others have opened in Cleveland, Seven Hills, Cuyahoga Heights and Bedford. The Brook Park parlor is slated for the Brookgate Shopping Center.
•Sweepstakes cafes: coming to your low-income neighborhood (IndyWeek.com)
•Internet Sweepstakes Parlors in Limbo (The Pilot)
•Brook Park council approves Internet sweepstakes cafes (The News Sun)
"I refer to it as bingo of the 21st century," said Tom Coyne, the former Brook Park mayor who works as a lobbyist representing operators seeking to open in Brook Park, Parma and Elyria. "I think this is the way sweepstakes are going to be operated in the future. We just have to make sure it cannot be construed as gambling. All we have is sweepstakes."
Garfield Heights Mayor Vic Collova was at first leery of the business.
"My feeling was it wasn't something we want -- it sounds like gambling," he said. "So we didn't just guess at whether it was legal. We checked it out. We took every precaution.
"I had undercover police go and take a look. We contacted the state attorney general. We had a public hearing. Council and I sort of went on a field trip." But now the mayor accepts the enterprise.
"Until it is ruled illegal," he said, "we certainly don't have a problem here."
For Collova, a key factor was a decision last November by a municipal judge in Toledo. Judge Francis Gorman ruled that Internet sweepstakes operations were not gambling and fall outside state gambling laws, because sweepstakes winnings are predetermined by computer and not by games of skill or chance.
Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray is staying out of the legality issue. Spokesman Ted Hart said Cordray is leaving it for local officials and the courts to decide, though the office provides investigative assistance to local police and prosecutors.
The computer games are billed strictly as entertainment -- or, as Gorman ruled, "a clever promotional device to increase the sale of phone cards" that are "not evidence of a gambling operation."
Customers don't even have to play games to learn if they are winners, because sweepstakes points are awarded with each phone card. Customers can swipe the cards to see if they won, then use the cards for phone calls.
"It looks like gambling, it sounds like it, but it's not gambling," said Mark Taylor, manager of Internet Escape in Garfield Heights, which offers 26 games including video slots, keno and poker.
In fact, the one-time Denny's restaurant at the Garfield Mall that Internet Escape operates does look a bit like a casino. Forty computers with flat-screen monitors and keyboards sit side-by-side in rows across the former dining room.
The place sounded more like a library on a recent weekday afternoon. The computers don't make the electronic racket that slots do. The players -- mostly women, middle-aged and older -- could have been a church bingo crowd.
"It's not like a casino," Taylor said. "People are saying it's nice and peaceful."
Games were visible on most screens, but "you can go to Yahoo, check e-mail or surf the Web," he said. Filters block porn sites.
No alcohol is served. Soft drinks are free. Customers must be 18 or older. The staff of five keeps the spot open as late as 4 a.m., when it must close for software maintenance.
"We haven't had one incident there," Collova said.
Garfield Heights will require a public hearing and zoning approval for each cafe, the mayor said. The city is concerned that the businesses not be near homes and have adequate parking.
By ordinance, the city charges operators a licensing fee of $5,000 a year, plus $40 a month per machine.
Coyne said cafe operators would like uniform statewide regulation.
"We hoped there was going to be some action under the casino bill that would address this, but that's not going to happen," he said.
Coyne does not expect the opening of casinos in Cleveland and elsewhere in Ohio to affect the business.
"I don't see these as a challenge to what casinos have," he said. "It's a different market, a different situation."
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