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New Internet sweepstakes cafes blocked in Plant City

PLANT CITY — The City Commission on Monday approved a moratorium on Internet sweepstakes cafes, tackling an issue that has swept through Florida in recent years and led counties and cities to enact legislation limiting or barring the venues.

By a 5-0 vote and with no discussion, commissioners established a seven-month suspension of new Internet sweepstakes cafes opening in Plant City.

The moratorium does not affect three cafes already open: U Lucky Dog Internet Sweepstakes Cafe, 1912 James L. Redman Parkway; the Five Star Cafe, 1707 James L. Redman Parkway; and the gaming room at the Walden Lake Golf & Country Club. All three can remain in operation, but are restricted from expanding.

Internet sweepstakes cafes are gaining lawmakers' attention as cities and counties debate whether the gaming rooms promote gambling. The cafes typically feature several computer screens and an attendant in the back. Patrons purchase Internet access or phone cards to enter a sweepstakes. The results play out on computer screens like tumblers on a slot machine.

Backers say it's understood at the outset that winners are predetermined, so no actual gambling occurs.

Some cities and counties, including Tampa and Hillsborough County, argue however that whether the gambling is simulated or real, seniors and others are being lulled into spending their savings at the cafes.

The issue was debated in the Legislature this past session, but died after it failed to reach a vote in the Senate. Plant City officials are waiting to see whether the Legislature takes action in the next session.

"So far, it's been left up to local governments until the Legislature resolves it," said City Attorney Kenneth W. Buchman.

In September, Tampa approved a six-month moratorium on new sweepstakes cafes, and in December 2011, Hillsborough County commissioners backed an ordinance banning the simulated gambling devices. At the time, law enforcement officials estimated 30 sweepstakes cafes were operating in Hillsborough's unincorporated areas. Tampa has five or six sweepstakes parlors.

Some say the governments are overreacting.

"I wish they would just leave them alone," said Judy Hodges, 66, as she exited the U Lucky Dog cafe last week.

Hodges said she and her husband, Robert Hodges, 67, who live in east Hillsborough County's Durant area, visit the cafe a couple of times a week. They liken the experience to entertainment. It costs money but sometimes there's a payoff, they said.

"It's a personal decision. It's fun," said Judy Hodges. "If you can't afford to lose the money, then don't go in there."

Steve Mercer, general manager at the Walden Lake Golf & Country Club, said patrons there also view the machines as entertainment.

Patrons can win cash prizes of up to $500 or points that can be redeemed for golf clubs, balls or other items at the pro shop.

"It's like a scratch-off in electronic format," he said.

The country club installed about 40 sweepstakes monitors this past year after Bogey's restaurant closed a few years ago. In addition to the monitors, the game room features a bar, pool tables, dartboards and golf and bowling video games. No one under 18 is allowed in.

Rich Shopes can be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2454.

New Internet sweepstakes cafes blocked in Plant City 11/29/12 [Last modified: Thursday, November 29, 2012 3:30am]
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