By Amber Jurgensen | Associate Editor
Internet cafés have been going bust after city and county officials throughout the country, who have likened the establishments to casinos, have placed bans in their respective communities.
The Plant City Commission is scheduled to consider a similar ban. The first of two public hearings will take place at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 26, in the Sadye Gibbs Martin Auditorium of the Nettie Berry Draughon Municipal Building, 302 W. Reynolds St.
Walking into any of Plant City’s three Internet cafés, it’s easy to see the similarities between the cafés and casinos. Rows of computer monitors display brightly colored games that resemble slot machines.
There also are some differences. Other than the volume of the games, the cafés are quiet, non-smoking rooms that resemble a computer lab in a public library.
And according to some attorneys, there are more differences between the cafés and casinos.
“It’s not gambling,” attorney Lawrence Walters said. “There’s no chance for people to pay to win a prize.”
Walters, of Walters Law Group — a Longwood-based law group that specializes in free speech, gambling and gaming law — has represented many Internet cafés in Hillsborough County, including You Lucky Dog and Five Star Entertainment, in Plant City.
“This is a very successful and popular business model in the state of Florida,” Walters said.
Walters and other Internet café supporters liken the cafés to sweepstakes. They say it’s no different than buying a Coke and seeing if the bottle cap has a prize printed on it.
“These businesses are doing it in a more effective and entertaining fashion than just using bottle caps or scratch-offs on McDonald’s products,” Walters said. “No money is wagered.”
Customers of Internet cafés pay for Internet or phone time. At many cafés, customers can go to any website they want and call any number they like. Along with their purchase, they receive a sweepstakes card that already is predetermined to be a winning or losing card. There are two ways to reveal the status of the card. Customers can play one of the games, or they can choose to automatically reveal the status of the card without play. The game has nothing to do with the outcome of the card.
“That’s where some of the city officials get confused,” Walters said. “You’re just playing a video game to see if your card was a winner.”
In Hillsborough, four Internet sweepstakes companies that filed a lawsuit challenging the ban have dropped the case after county commissioners amended language in the ordinate to outlaw “simulated gambling devices.”
In Seminole County, the county has banned simulated gambling devices, but the ordinance has been challenged in federal court. Litigation is pending.
“It’s probably considered the lead case in the legality of banning these establishments,” Walters said.
Café opponents say there is no regulation of the integrity of the games. Furthermore, they say the games take away revenue from licensed gambling businesses that go to public education, health and social programs.
City commissioners have several options to consider at next week’s meeting: Call for an ordinance to completely ban Internet cafés; adopt a regulatory ordinance; adopt a temporary moratorium on Internet cafés; or it could do nothing.
Jacksonville adopted a regulatory ordinance earlier this year that limits the number of permits it will issue for Internet cafés, requires security cameras and bans alcohol and minors from the cafés. You Lucky Dog and Five Star Entertainment does not serve alcohol, but the Lucky Tee Sweepstakes at the Walden Lake Golf and Country Club has a full bar.
Tampa has enacted a six-month moratorium or ban on new Internet cafés. According to a Plant City agenda report, it is recommended that the city adopt a moratorium that would last until July 1, 2013.
“That would give the city manager and myself some time to make some recommendations to the commission,” City Attorney Kenneth Buchman said. “We’re just trying to uphold the status quo until we can reach a conclusion.”
The moratorium would not shut down already existing Internet cafés but rather prevent new ones from opening.
Contact Amber Jurgensen at email@example.com.