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Tarpon Springs will consider ban on sweepstakes cafes

Tarpon Springs may be the next city in Pinellas County to place a six-month ban on new Internet cafe applications in light of pending legislation in the state Legislature.

Douglas R. Clifford | Times (2011)

Tarpon Springs may be the next city in Pinellas County to place a six-month ban on new Internet cafe applications in light of pending legislation in the state Legislature.

Tarpon Springs — Tarpon Springs may join Tampa and Clearwater in implementing a moratorium on applications for new Internet sweepstakes cafes.

The move comes as Pinellas County and the Florida Legislature grapple with proposals to limit or ban the cafes, which operate in a legal gray area.

Tarpon Springs City Attorney Jim Yacavone recommended the six-month prohibition on the cafes at Tuesday's City Commission meeting and commissioners signaled their support. He will draft the ban and present it to the commission for a vote.

Internet cafes, which offer computerized games that imitate slot machines, have proliferated throughout the state in recent years.

After Tarpon Springs approved one cafe in February, two more applied for permits but did not show up for scheduled appointments with the city's Planning and Zoning Board.

The ban could not prevent the business approved in February from opening as planned, Yacavone said.

"All the moratorium does is say, 'Look, something's cropped up that needs some study, so we're putting a stop to anything more while we try to figure out what, if anything, needs to be done,' " Yacavone said.

Cities have long struggled to interpret the antiquated state "sweepstakes" law that applies to Internet cafes, and the Legislature has repeatedly stamped out measures to update the law.

The issue seemed to gain a little traction in the Legislature last week after the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who was questioned over her ties to Internet gaming company Allied Veterans of the World, accused of operating a $300 million racketeering, gambling and money laundering scheme under the guise of charity.

The cafes circumvent the state gambling ban by using sweepstakes to attract customers who pay for Internet time. Attorneys for the sweepstakes cafes have argued the model is similar to scratch-off sweepstakes games at McDonald's.

The lack of guidance from the state has caused cafes to be banned in some places, while they operate unhampered in others.

Local governments that enact ordinances against the cafes often face expensive litigation, but that's a risk Pinellas County seems willing to take. The Pinellas County Commission sent a letter to Tarpon officials Tuesday seeking approval for a countywide ban on the cafes. The letter argues the county doesn't need to wait for state lawmakers to act.

"Pinellas County's position is that the operation of these businesses is inconsistent with current law," the letter reads.

It's unclear from the letter who would enforce the countywide ban or defend lawsuits that could result from it.

Contact Brittany Alana Davis at bdavis@tampabay.com or 850-323-0353. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Tarpon Springs will consider ban on sweepstakes cafes 03/20/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 7:42pm]
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