Wednesday, April 18, 2018
Business

Some Hernando Internet cafes back in business as social clubs, minus prizes

SPRING HILL

Terry Kasberg's customers begin to arrive in earnest about 2 p.m. Mostly elderly, and some with walkers, they dive in from the afternoon heat to find their host eager to greet them.

"How are you folks doing today?" Kasberg asks a couple settling into comfortable chairs behind brightly lit computer terminals. Both smile as the owner of Spinners, an Internet game room, brings them plastic foam cups filled with coffee.

While Kasberg's outgoing charm is certainly one of the reasons people still flock to the game room tucked in a strip mall on U.S. 19, most of his clients agree that they come simply because it gives them something fun to do with their day that they can't do anywhere else.

Before April 13, the day Gov. Rick Scott signed state House Bill 155, which labeled such establishments as gambling operations, Kasberg's business was booming, attracting upward of 75 people a day, all of whom would spend hours playing games that some say mimic Las Vegas-style slots machines.

The law's enactment changed all of that. Within hours of its signing, Kasberg and the nearly three dozen sweepstakes parlor owners in Hernando County quickly shuttered their operations. Although many owners simply gave up, Kasberg refused to cave in, and in June relaunched Spinners in accordance with the new state regulations, which prevent him from giving away anything of tangible value in exchange for the accumulation of points.

No longer referred to as a "sweepstakes cafe," Kasberg's business is now marketed as something of a "social club," offering what he believes his mostly senior citizen clientele came for in the first place — entertainment and companionship.

Customers still purchase Internet time from Kasberg to play games on computer terminals, and can gain additional time depending on the number of points they accrue. Like before, they are offered complimentary food, soft drinks and coffee. And on weekends, the venue even offers live entertainment by T.J. Arciola, who performs songs by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and other crooners.

"A lot of these people simply want something to do other than sit home and watch TV all day," Kasberg said. "Coming here doesn't cost them much. It's fun, and they know they'll always be treated right."

Spinners customers Dennis and Dorothy Smith said that while they still enjoy coming to Kasberg's venue, they felt the law banning prize giveaways was a ploy by lawmakers to steer them toward state-sanctioned gambling sites.

"They just wanted to dictate how people spend their money," Dorothy Smith said. "I think we're smart enough to decide on our own what we want. It's our business, not the government's."

Despite attracting good crowds, Kasberg admits that business now is only a shadow of what it once was. Overall revenue is a quarter of what it was before the ban, and nearly every dollar earned goes toward keeping the operation going.

Kasberg, who also owns a real estate business, admits that the chance of winning prizes and cash were a big draw to many of his clients.

"There were people who came only for that," he said. "But those are people who also go to the Hard Rock (Casino) and don't mind spending a lot of money to do it."

The proliferation of the sweepstakes cafes over the past couple of years was evident throughout Hernando County, particularly in areas with large populations of senior citizens. But as the phenomenon increased in popularity, state lawmakers grew more concerned about the enterprises, which operated mostly via a loophole in the state's gambling laws that allowed companies to offer sweepstakes as a promotion for selling a product.

The bill to ban Internet cafes came after a federal and state investigation into Allied Veterans of the World, which operated Internet cafes throughout Florida. The investigation resulted in the arrest of 57 people statewide on gambling and racketeering charges, and eventually led to the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, whose public relations firm once represented Allied. The ban didn't affect electronic gaming devices in casinos, at racetracks or on tribal reservations.

Tami Patel, owner of Lucky Duck 2 at County Line Road and U.S. 19, said that the hastily written law unfairly lumped her and other legitimate businesses in with a few sweepstakes operators who were flagrantly flaunting state gambling laws.

"What they did was kill the good businesses along with the bad ones," said Patel, who reopened her Internet cafe this week with changes similar to those made at Spinners. "We just want to have a fair shot like the casinos."

Patel and Kasberg both say they would welcome a regulated industry that would enable them to operate as they had before, and they are lobbying other Internet cafe owners to help them put political pressure on lawmakers. Meanwhile, both owners are hoping that one of the numerous legal challenges to the new law that are winding their way through the courts will bring some relief.

"Something has to give," Kasberg said. "People don't like the law. It's intrusive, and the politicians who supported it are going to have to face a lot of angry voters in the next election."

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

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