Internet cafes vanish from Hillsborough landscape
By CHRISTIAN M. WADE | The Tampa Tribune
Published: December 19, 2011
It was one of
several businesses in the Northdale Shoppes plaza, a strip mall in this northwest Hillsborough County enclave of subdivisions and retail outlets.
Other plaza tenants say the man who rented the small storefront spent thousands of dollars on the property – located among a tanning salon, a neighborhood pharmacy and a yogurt shop – installing computers, leather chairs, a kitchenette and other amenities.
Then, about six months after opening, the Tampa Internet Entertainment Sweepstakes Cafe closed down.
As quickly as they
appeared, the Internet sweepstakes cafes that flocked to Hillsborough after other counties outlawed them are disappearing from the local landscape. Some, like the one that occupied a spot in the Northdale plaza, were shuttered days after a Dec. 7 county commission vote to ban what they called “simulated gambling devices.”
“That’s how these guys operate,” Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Larry McKinnon said of the Internet café owners. “If they know heavy enforcement is coming, they just pack up and go somewhere else. And it’s usually just across the county line.”
Hillsborough sheriff’s investigators, who are visiting the cafes to inform owners of the ban, are finding many of the 30 or so outlets in the county already are closed.
McKinnon said that’s what happened when Pinellas County voted to ban the cafes.
“We started seeing them popping up like mushrooms all over the county,” he said.
Tenants said they knew little about the man who ran the Internet café at Northdale Shoppes. But they say he spent a lot of money setting it up and didn’t seem to get a lot of business.
“I never saw anyone going into that place,” said Silvia Clarke, owner of Britan’s Yogurt Mill, who has been a tenant in the plaza for nearly a decade. “It was very strange.”
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The café was open 24-hours, served food and drinks and catered mostly to seniors.
Attempts to reach the owner were unsuccessful. A man who answered the door at the business on Friday said the owner was a real estate agent, but didn’t know how to reach him. The man, who wouldn’t give his name, said he was helping the owner move out.
Dozens of other sweepstakes cafes, including several along Hillsborough Avenue, also have closed their doors within the past week, following approval of the countywide ban.
Alan Petzold had operated a café near Hillsborough Avenue and Racetrack Road with a business partner and planned to open another one, before the ban was approved.
He said the county’s crackdown on the cafes is hurting small business owners.
“We’re not getting rich doing this,” Petzold said. “They’re just putting people out of work.”
He said he knows of a few café operators – particularly those financed by corporations with deep-pockets – who are digging in their heels for an expected legal challenge.
“They’re going to fight to stay open,” Petzold said. “Honestly, I don’t blame them.”
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Similar moves by Pinellas, Seminole and other Florida counties to ban the games have been challenged in court and Hillsborough officials are bracing for possible legal action.
“We haven’t seen any litigation yet, but we have been told that it’s forthcoming,” said Chris Brown, an attorney representing the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office.
Justin Kaplan, a Miami-based attorney, represents Arcola Systems, which makes software and hardware used in cyber cafes including several in Hillsborough.
He said many café operators are worried about being treated like criminals.
“They’re shutting down because they’re afraid of getting raided,” he said. “These are mostly independent mom-and-pop operations that are being driven out of business.”
Casinos, race tracks and other gambling establishments in Florida must adhere to strict regulations, but the Internet sweepstakes cafes operate beneath the radar of regulators.
The legality of the cafes is in dispute throughout the state because state law is vague on what constitutes a slot machine. Operators of the cafes say they are offering a chance at cash prizes to customers who buy Internet time. Though the players see a slot machine on their computer screen, the winning number is predetermined, supporters say, much like a scratch-off ticket used as a promotion at fast food and retail outlets.
Hillsborough Commissioner Sandy Murman, who pushed the ban, calls the cafes illegal gambling houses that don’t pay taxes and siphon money from elderly and poor people.
She wasn’t surprised to hear many of them already had shut down.
“They’re just going to pack up and find somewhere else that they can prey on vulnerable people,” she said. “It’s the nature of these kinds of businesses. They’re predatory.”