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Hillsborough explores moratorium, licensing for Internet sweepstakes cafes

TAMPA — They are the subject of lawsuits, legislation and debate over whether they constitute illegal gambling operations.

Hillsborough County commissioners initiated steps Wednesday toward ordering a moratorium on new Internet sweepstakes cafes until those matters are settled.

"Let's take care of our people in our county right now," said Commissioner Sandra Murman, who made the proposal.

Commissioners voted unanimously to ask their staff to create a licensing requirement for existing sweepstakes cafe owners, similar to requirements previously established for strip clubs.

The requirement will come back for consideration at future public hearings.

Once those cafes are registered, the window would quickly close for new sweepstakes cafe licenses. New ones would be banned until courts rule or the Legislature establishes guidelines on how they can be regulated.

The license and moratorium approach would give commissioners an opportunity to halt the fast spread of the businesses since they began attracting attention from law enforcement.

A ban of the businesses in Pinellas County has prompted a lawsuit by one owner, and Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee has put similar businesses in his county on notice that they may be operating illegally.

Murman's proposal was a last-minute add-on to Wednesday's commission agenda after she had canceled a previously scheduled workshop on the discussion.

It did not appear any cafe owners or employees were in attendance.

Nancee Luarsen, manager of the Enless II, which she described as an Internet room on W Hillsborough Avenue in Town 'N Country, said she wasn't aware of the meeting and was surprised by the board's action.

She said she doesn't mind having to follow guidelines but said she wants to hear more.

"To me, I don't mind jumping through any hoops they want me to jump through, as long as they're reasonable," Laursen said.

Sweepstakes cafes typically sell phone cards or Internet access to people who can then log into a computer at the business to play a slot machine-style game and find out if they've won money. Or customers can simply use the cards to place phone calls or use the Internet.

And they're spreading fast. Murman presented a map created by the Sheriff's Office identifying close to 30 such business in unincorporated Hillsborough.

Since the map was created Oct. 5, eight more have opened, she said.

"I'm just trying to find something as a stop-gap measure right now," Murman said.

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough explores moratorium, licensing for Internet sweepstakes cafes 10/19/11 [Last modified: Thursday, October 20, 2011 1:11am]

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