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New Internet sweepstakes cafes put on hold in Clearwater

That Great Place Internet Cafe is one of 12 sweepstakes cafes operating in Clearwater.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times (2012)

That Great Place Internet Cafe is one of 12 sweepstakes cafes operating in Clearwater.

CLEARWATER — Inside a dozen Internet sweepstakes cafes in this city, rows of mostly gray-haired people sit in front of computers that imitate slot machines.

Numbers and symbols slide by on the screens as the computers buzz and clang and make that familiar slot-machine "Ding! Ding! Ding!" sound, occasionally booming out the word "Jackpot!"

The first Internet sweepstakes cafe in Clearwater opened 21 months ago. Now 12 of them are operating, more than in any surrounding city. But no more will be allowed to open — for now.

With little discussion, the City Council voted unanimously Wednesday night to impose a six-month moratorium on new sweepstakes cafes in Clearwater.

The measure won't close the cafes that are already open, but it will prevent them from expanding and adding more computers.

"So, we're going to let them stay and operate but we're not going to let any new ones open up?" Mayor George Cretekos asked the city's legal advisers. The answer was yes.

The new rule is intended to buy Clearwater some time while local officials wait to see what, if anything, state legislators will do about the cafes that are opening up all over Florida. During the current legislative session, lawmakers will consider two different bills that seek to impose restrictions on the cafes. The issue was debated in the Legislature last year but died after it failed to reach a vote in the Senate.

Clearwater isn't the only city doing this. Tampa imposed a six-month moratorium on new sweepstakes cafes in September and recently extended it. Plant City and Zephyrhills have passed similar moratoriums.

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

The debate over the sweepstakes cafes is also playing out in the courts.

Hillsborough County outlawed the cafes last year, prompting a lawsuit by four sweepstakes companies that are suing the county, claiming the ban violates their rights.

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.

This has prompted a federal lawsuit against the Sheriff's Office, which is still pending in court, said Rob Surette, a Clearwater assistant city attorney who is the legal adviser for the city's Police Department.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

New Internet sweepstakes cafes put on hold in Clearwater 03/07/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 7, 2013 7:21pm]
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