GAMBLING

With ban on Internet cafes, gambling operators scramble to hang on

 

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

For Rick Scott, the “jobs” governor, the bill he will sign Wednesday to ban Internet cafes is as awkward as it gets.

The measure is guaranteed to put people out of work and, if the issue hadn’t come up, he would likely still have a lieutenant governor.

From Gadsden to Monroe counties, Internet cafe and adult arcade operators say an estimated 14,000 people will be forced into the unemployment lines as a result of the Legislature’s prohibition on casino game look-alikes.

Nonetheless, Scott said Tuesday, he will sign the bill and it will take effect immediately.

But the resilient industry, accustomed to living on the edge, is not ready to retire.

Many arcade operators, who were in business long before the upstart Internet cafes came into town, are preparing to hang on by reconfiguring their machines to accommodate the new law or challenge the law in court.

“We are currently working on a package to retrofit all machines to be able to comply with new laws,” Shawn Mosayov of E and D Trading, a supplier in Hollywood, wrote on a Facebook page.

Gaming law experts say the retrofit could involve using tokens worth $1 to $20 and allowing players to collect prizes using a debit or swipe card. Others may offer pseudo prizes — such as giant Teddy Bears — that can be traded for cash at a shop next door.

“We’re trying really hard to ... modify the game to be in compliance with the new law,’’ said Pierre Marcoux, vice president of sales and marketing at Electromatic International, a machine manufacturer based in Hollywood. “To bring that into true compliance with the law it might not be practical and I don’t know if it will still be lucrative.’’

HB 155 is a response to a three-year federal and state investigation into illegal gambling at Internet cafes run by the Allied Veterans of the World. Former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who once worked for Allied Veterans, resigned, she said, to avoid becoming a distraction.

Enforcing the law will be the job of local law enforcement across the state. In Hillsborough County, Col. Donna Lusczynski of the sheriff’s office said that her office will “give a warning and sufficient time to comply before we take criminal action just to be fair.”

The new law limits arcades to operate only games of skill, limit prizes to 75 cents per win and prohibits players from accumulating points.

Marc Dunbar, a lobbyist for Gulfstream racetrack who helped write the law, said that if the industry is able to find a work around, it may come in the form of an electronic version of a skill game, such as tic-tac-toe, chess or checkers. Players could play eight to 10 lines of games, saying each is its own game, allowing the player to win up to $7.50.

Because the law requires that each game must start and stop, and be activated only by the insertion of another coin, the arcades may also have to adjust their swipe card technology to keep track of each spin, and that would slow down game play dramatically, Dunbar said.

In addition to revamping the machines, the industry is mounting a push to file a lawsuit against the state. Arcade manufacturers, which are allowed to operate games only if there are a minimum of 50 games in play, are urging their operators and patrons to file complaints against retailers and restaurants that operate similar games but provide far fewer machines.

“Everybody is just waiting to see what they can do,’’ said John Sasso, sales manager for Electromatic International.

Sasso has sent out a call to all arcade owners to scout out any illegal games operating in retail stores and children’s entertainment centers, such as Denny’s, Golden Corral, Wal-Mart, Chuck E Cheese and Dave & Busters, take a picture, and report it to police.

“It is sad to say that most locations are now closed due to HB 155,’’ Sasso wrote in a note to arcade owners. “But it is not over. There are still several legal maneuvers that need to happen before burying the key.”

Karen Kopp, owner of two arcades in Fort Myers and Naples, said she has been asked to donate $4,000 to a legal defense fund to fight the new law.

Kopp spent Tuesday at a farewell party at the Fort Myers senior arcade she started seven years ago, called Vegas Experience. Each of her arcades employs 15 people and she has told her staff to file for unemployment starting Friday.

Kopp said she is closing her arcades Wednesday, when the law takes effect, because she doesn’t want to risk being arrested. Her decision means forfeiting two leases and 214 machines that a month ago were valued at $3,000 apiece.

“They’re probably worth $200 to $300 now,’’ she said.

Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo and Tampa Bay Times reporter Bill Varian contributed to this report.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas

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