CLEARWATER — Barbara Cramer plays the slots three times a week, handing over at least $60 each time and winning — so far — exactly nothing.
The 80-year-old Largo resident can't explain the force propelling her back to the games. "I'm nuts," she said, making her way back to her car on Thursday after another day of losing money.
Cramer is not parking herself in a casino for hours at a time; she is sitting in a cushioned black chair in an Internet "sweepstakes cafe" in Clearwater, watching as numbers and symbols slide by on a computer screen. And although she is losing hundreds of dollars playing a game in which the odds of winning are predetermined, and on a machine that spits out a familiar Ding! Ding! Ding! sound, whether she is gambling is open to legal interpretation.
A year ago, Clearwater had one Internet cafe, opened by a man who was so concerned about its legality that he sought the blessing of the city's police department beforehand. Then, as now, the department's official position was that Internet sweepstakes cafes fall into a legal loophole, leaving law enforcement agents on shaky ground if they choose to spend time and money pursuing them. Unregulated, Internet sweepstakes cafes have multiplied across Florida — there are now more than 1,000 of them operating across the state. Three have sprouted in Clearwater.
Clearwater's appeal for a sweepstakes cafe owner has as much to do with its incorporation as a city, as with its available real estate and sizable elderly population. In unincorporated Pinellas County, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and his predecessor Jim Coats have led aggressive campaigns against the cafes, ordering them to close and, in some cases, seizing their equipment. The Sheriff's Office, working in tandem with the State Attorney's Office, is currently prosecuting three cafe owners and has wrapped up cases against five others, three of whom pled guilty.
"Once they find a place that won't enforce, they'll be there," said Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe. "If you drive up U.S. 19, you'll find them in certain cities where they don't enforce them or go after them.''
In Clearwater, and many cities in Pinellas, the police departments' relationship with these businesses is far more cordial. A few have opened in Largo and Pinellas Park, none in St. Petersburg, according to the police department there.
John Shaa, who in 2011 opened That Great Place Internet Cafe in Clearwater, said he ran the concept by the city's police department and heard no objections. His relationship with the police has been "great," he said. "The community officers came out and met with us, we showed them how everything works."
Clearwater police Chief Tony Holloway shed some light on his approach to sweepstakes cafes at a July meeting of the City Council, where he said the cafes were technically legal and he was powerless to shut them down.
"If we get a complaint about the Internet cafe and it's gambling, we will send a detective inside the business. The detective will try to make a case," he said, adding that it could cost $10,000 to hire an expert to support the department's case. A spokeswoman for the police department said it has not arrested any sweepstakes cafe owners.
Shaa, who said he opened his cafe to give elderly residents a way to pass the time, complained that businesses like his are being unfairly targeted. Most of his patrons spend a minimal amount of money, between $5 and $20 each time they come in, he said. He gives them soda and coffee for free and on Sundays he organizes gatherings meant to foster a sense of community, not unlike a church social. "Short of Jesus, but everything else is there. Maybe he's even there, who knows," he said.
Other sweepstakes cafe owners were less forthcoming. Naomi Sartain, who opened The Hot Spot Cyber Center on Gulf to Bay Boulevard earlier this month, initially agreed to talk to a reporter, but did not return calls. Another cafe, Telesweeps of Clearwater, is registered to James M. Watson of North Canton, Ohio, but a sign on the storefront says "new ownership." Watson refused to speak about the business and hung up on a reporter.
On a weekday evening, Telesweeps of Clearwater was doing a steady business. For most of the week, the cafe is open from 9 a.m. to midnight and a neighbor said there are usually still cars in the parking lot at closing time. On Sundays it opens at 10 a.m.
Inside, computers buzz and ding and clang in near-perfect imitation of slot machines. A recorded voice booms "Jackpot!" and a sea of coiffed gray hair swivels in search of the winner. Their delight is fleeting, but real.
"It's good, clean fun," said Edna Price, 70, who drives to Telesweeps two or three times a week with her husband Bill, 85, and together they spend about $50 on each go. The soda flows free of charge, lunch and sometimes dinner are also on the house, and unlike some of the other customers, the Prices say they have won more money than they've spent.
The couple comes to play the slots, but they don't consider it gambling. "We're retired. It gives us something to do," Edna Price said.
Said Bill: "This is the nicest place in town."
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at email@example.com or 727-893-8779. Times Staff researchers Caryn Baird and Natalie Watson contributed to this article.