Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Business

Internet cafe in Spring Hill plans to reopen Saturday — without prizes

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SPRING HILL — Six weeks ago, Terry Kasberg's business was flying high. Customers were coming in by the droves to plunk down money and take their chances on Internet sweepstakes games.

But that all ended April 13, the day Gov. Rick Scott signed House Bill 155, which labeled such establishments as gambling operations, forcing Kasberg and every other sweepstakes cafe operator to shut their doors.

Now, Kasberg says he's ready to take a gamble when he reopens Spinners Sweepstakes Cafe on U.S. 19 on Saturday under the guidance of a new state law that severely restricts the way he can do business. Gone will be the prizes and payouts that were once awarded in exchange for points accrued by players. Those are now considered illegal. Customers who purchase Internet time to play the games on his 50 machines can expect nothing if they win.

For Kasberg, it's an experiment he hopes will work long enough for a legal remedy to be found that will at least temporarily suspend a law that he feels is unconstitutional.

"The hope is that our customers will still want to come, if for nothing else, for the social aspect," said Kasberg, 52. "There aren't a lot of activities in Hernando County that cater to seniors. We've always provided that for them."

Kasberg said he decided to reopen after he heard that the new law is attracting legal challenges that could lead to its eventual overturn in the courts. That's already happening in South Florida, where lawyers representing the Florida Arcade and Bingo Association filed a lawsuit April 18 in Broward County Circuit Court, alleging the law is discriminatory and violates the due process provisions in the state and U.S. constitutions.

Two weeks ago, the state moved the case to federal court, and the arcade association filed a motion to expedite the hearing in order to activate a temporary injunction.

Earlier this year, Kasberg emerged as an activist for the 35 or so other Internet cafe owners in Hernando County when he organized a rally to protest the legislation while it was still being considered in Tallahassee. Since then, he has maintained his stance that the law was unwarranted because the activities he and others promoted were considered legal for decades in Florida until lobbyists from large gaming institutions and parimutuel operations began applying political pressure to legislators.

"We were shoved out by well-financed interests who saw us as a threat to them," he said. "They passed a law under pressure that people hate. It's thrown a lot of people out of business and caused the loss of thousands of jobs."

The law requires arcade games to be coin operated, and it caps prizes at 75 cents. It was pushed through the Legislature after a multistate and federal investigation led to raids in March at Internet cafes across Florida, the arrests of 57 people and the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll.

According to the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, none of the county's Internet cafes have reopened. Any that do will likely be investigated, and their owners will be subject to arrest if found in violation of state law, sheriff's spokeswoman Denise Moloney said in an email.

Hernando County Assistant State Attorney Mark Simpson said that he while he saw no obvious problem with the way Kasberg claims to want to run his business, he cautioned that the establishment will likely be under close scrutiny.

"If he wants to take the chance, best of luck to him," Simpson said. "I hope he talks with an attorney first and makes sure that he's aware of the law."

Kasberg said his intention isn't to personally challenge the law by reopening. However, he says he intends to lobby his customers to push to get the law overturned.

"I think what I'm doing sends an important message that we're still here," he said.

Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.

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