Sunday, June 24, 2018
Business

Gov. Rick Scott signs Internet cafe ban into law

CLEARWATER — John Shaa sat in his office Wednesday, waiting for the call from his friend in Tallahassee. Shaa, owner of That Great Place Internet Cafe in Clearwater, couldn't bear to watch the news. He was afraid it might tell him he had to close his cafe, his primary source of income, and lay off 12 people.

Shaa's fears were realized when Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill that bans Internet sweepstakes cafes in Florida.

"My employees have families to feed. Many are over 50, making it hard for them to find work in this economy," Shaa said. "One man was looking for a job for four years before I hired him And just like that, they're all out of jobs."

With no fanfare, the governor signed HB 155 in the privacy of his Capitol office. The law was effective immediately, giving law enforcement new definitions on illegal gambling machines.

The legislation came in response to a three-year federal and state investigation into illegal gambling at Internet cafes affiliated with Allied Veterans of the World, a St. Augustine-based organization. The arrest of 57 owners and operators associated with Allied Veterans put pressure on Florida legislators to move with record speed to outlaw the gaming machines.

Authorities allege that Allied Veterans and its affiliates collected $300 million in revenue but donated only $6 million to charity. Former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll resigned in the wake of the investigation. She had once worked as a consultant for Allied Veterans and resigned, she said, to avoid becoming a distraction to the governor.

"I think the House and Senate did the right thing to crack down on illegal gaming, especially in light of the Allied Veterans multi-state criminal conspiracy,'' Scott told reporters Wednesday.

Scott would not respond to questions about the 14,000 people who are expected to be put out of work because of the law. "I have a jobs agenda,'' he said, urging the Legislature to pass his proposal for eliminating the sales tax on manufacturing equipment, one of his two priorities this session.

The Florida Arcade Association fought the Legislature's attempt to include its arcade devices in the crackdown.

"With the stroke of the governor's pen, thousands of jobs were lost today," said Gale Fontaine, the association president. "With all the effort that is put into this state to create jobs, it is unconscionable that the state is acting to put people in the unemployment line."

Arcade machine manufacturers say they will challenge the law and are seeking ways to retrofit the machines.

For the past three weeks, owners of Internet cafes and adult arcades have been dismantling equipment and laying off workers in anticipation of the bill signing. Florida has an estimated 1,000 Internet cafes and more than 200 adult arcades.

Shaa and other Tampa Bay owners rallied patrons to write Scott letters and jam his email in-box in a futile effort to save the cafes, which are especially popular with retirees. Customers buy Internet time that gives them access to sweepstakes games, with winnings paid in cash. While played on a computer screen, the games resemble casino slot machines.

"We come to relax and meet people," said Gayla Larkin, 72, playing a game of "Safari" Wednesday at That Great Place. "We're not drinking. We're not smoking marijuana. This is a social community. Clean fun."

Larkin said government should regulate, not eliminate, her favorite hangout, where Coke and brownies are often served free. She wrote the governor an email asking, "Don't you have bigger fish to fry?"

Pam Schmelzer, the cafe cashier, said the business is not affiliated with Allied Veterans. No customer has been scammed, she said, and no charity has been cheated.

"They gave us a bad name, but I believe all we do is help people," she said. "One customer told me the Internet cafe is better than therapy. She can break away from reality for a while, spend about $20 and return to her family refreshed. Now, tell me, how is this hurting anyone?"

The duty of enforcing the law lies with local law enforcement.

A spokesperson for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said deputies will give warnings before arresting anyone. The Clearwater Police Department will inspect any open cafes and tell owners what's legal before making any arrests.

Phyllis Andrew, a cashier at Busch Sweeps in Tampa, said her location may reopen by switching from sweepstakes to bingo.

"A lot of people will lose their jobs," Andrew, 43, said, "and a lot of people won't have places to go for extracurricular activities."

At Lucky Charmz on Florida Avenue in Tampa on Wednesday, owner Adam Keeble said he has been in touch with the Tampa Police Department and hopes there will be a grace period before cafes are forced to close down.

"It's just a sad day," he said.

After learning the governor had signed the bill, Shaa called employees at his cafes in Clearwater and Largo.

"We have to do it," he said. "We have to shut down. I don't want to go to jail."

He told the staff to hang "closed" signs on the doors. He said to let patrons finish one last game.

Comments
Office building demolition at Midtown Tampa site proves tougher than expected

Office building demolition at Midtown Tampa site proves tougher than expected

TAMPA ó Stripped to the girders, the old Bromley office building looked about as substantial as fish bones on a dinner plate.But the 5-story structure proved Sunday it still had a surprising amount of fight left in it.A demolition team had planned to...
Updated: 2 hours ago
President Trumpís trade war threatens the US newspaper industry

President Trumpís trade war threatens the US newspaper industry

STERLING, Ill. - As a longtime editor of small-town newspapers, Jeff Rogers has seen his industry face the collapse of print advertising, the rise of the internet and more. Today, his 18 employees work in a newsroom here that puts out two daily newsp...
Updated: 10 hours ago
Making the case for more drones

Making the case for more drones

BLACKSBURG, Va. - They considered how well everyone slept the night before. They considered the chances a military jet might scream by on a training mission. They considered the farmer in the field.Then they considered some more.After making it throu...
Published: 06/24/18
Tampa Bay workforce development initiative looks to Houston for lessons

Tampa Bay workforce development initiative looks to Houston for lessons

The biggest hospitals in Houston had a problem.To earn a prized institutional certification, they needed more nurses with bachelor of science degrees in nursing.But local colleges were more focused on turning out nurses with two-year degrees who, to ...
Published: 06/22/18
Health care IT company CareSync shuts down, laying off 292

Health care IT company CareSync shuts down, laying off 292

TAMPA ó The days ahead were supposed to be bright.For weeks, the future of health care tech company CareSync had been thrown into question as founder and CEO and founder Travis Bond unexpectedly departed, kicking off multiple rounds of layoffs. But t...
Published: 06/22/18
Coal and gas hold onto their share of electricity production, despite massive push for renewables

Coal and gas hold onto their share of electricity production, despite massive push for renewables

Hereís an intriguing set of facts: Coal produces the same percentage of the worldís electricity as 20 years ago. Oil and gas remain about level, too.Same for nonfossil fuel sources. In other words, the massive push towards renewables over the past co...
Published: 06/22/18
Brink: Why have Floridaís working-age men left the labor market in droves

Brink: Why have Floridaís working-age men left the labor market in droves

A cancer lurks within Floridaís otherwise rosy job numbers, one thatís been called a quiet catastrophe and an intractable time bomb.Too many men between the ages of 25 and 54 have stopped working.Economists call those the prime-age years. Incomes gen...
Published: 06/22/18
Pride divided no more: St. Pete Pride comes back together

Pride divided no more: St. Pete Pride comes back together

ST. PETERSBURG — The 16th annual St. Pete Pride Parade is getting ready to march along the downtown waterfront the second straight year. But many hope to move past the division caused last year when the parade was uprooted from its original hom...
Published: 06/22/18
For sale: A Tampa Bay area elementary school where you can eat tacos and buy wine

For sale: A Tampa Bay area elementary school where you can eat tacos and buy wine

ST. PETERSBURG ó For sale: a 104-year-old elementary school with restaurant and wine shop. It even has a title company where you can close the deal.Less than a year after completing a major renovation of the historic North Ward school, developer Jona...
Published: 06/22/18
Domain Homes: Buyers love them, some others donít

Domain Homes: Buyers love them, some others donít

TAMPA ó When the 2008 financial crash brought down the nationís housing market, hundreds of home builders went out of business. Among them was Sharon McSwain Homes in Atlanta, forced to liquidate in 2009.But just as developers like to develop, builde...
Published: 06/21/18
Updated: 06/22/18