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Internet cafes brace for closure under new law

TAMPA

Terry Kasberg is preparing to declare bankruptcy.

He sank his savings into opening Spinners Sweepstakes, an Internet cafe in Spring Hill. He took out more than $100,000 in loans to buy the computers needed to run the games. And he signed a lease that he'll soon be forced to break.

Attracting business isn't the problem. With more than 3,000 customers since its November opening, Spinners has been a success.

But soon, a new law could shut it down.

Slot machine look-alike games operated by Internet cafes will be officially outlawed under a bill passed this week by the Florida Senate. Gov. Rick Scott plans to sign the bill into law, according to his spokeswoman, and it will take effect immediately.

Prompted by a federal and state investigation into Allied Veterans of the World that led to the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll and the arrests three weeks ago of 57 people on gambling and other charges, the swift-moving measure has left owners reeling and customers confused.

"The impact is going to be severe," Kasberg said. "It's going to trickle down to affect everyone."

Aimee Pistey owns Clearwater's Hot Spot Cyber Center on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and another Internet cafe in Tampa. She'll close her doors and move the businesses to North Carolina if the bill is signed into law. Her 37 employees would immediately lose their jobs, she said.

"I was shocked," she said of the Senate's move. "I thought we'd just be regulated like in other states."

It's also a blow to her customers, who are like family, she said. Pistey knows the names of their children, grandchildren and dogs. "It's safe. It's fun. It's our world," she said of the Clearwater store, which opened in October. "It's not predatory in any way, shape or form."

At Busch Sweeps, bingo is the backup plan.

Before Internet cafes became popular, Busch Sweeps was Busch Bingo. Located in a strip mall off of Busch Boulevard in Tampa, the business' old sign still remains. The new name is spray-painted in yellow across the windows.

"If (Scott) does sign and everything goes through, we'll adapt and transition back to a bingo hall," said manager Hank Braak. In doing so, the business hopes to keep most of its customer base, though, Braak said, it will probably be forced to cut the six-person staff in half.

John Shaa, who in 2011 opened That Great Place Internet Cafe in Clearwater and Largo, recently posted a plea on his store walls: "Write to Governor Rick Scott. Regulate not eliminate Internet cafes!"

"I saved up my whole life to open this business," said Shaa, who cited his grandmother's growing boredom as his reason to run Internet cafes. "These senior citizens and retirees need a place to hang out, socialize, pass the time. They love it here, and we certainly don't take advantage of anyone."

Shaa said customers at his Clearwater store spent $3,000 on Thursday and he kept only $286.

"It's not like a casino — we don't keep 90 percent of the money," he said. "If anything, it's like bingo. Completely harmless."

Wilbur Wood, a regular patron of That Great Place, said it's not about the money. He has made it, lost it — things even out, Wood said.

"I enjoy seeing the people, sharing a good time," said Wood, 74, a New Yorker who spends half the year in Clearwater. "They give us meals and Coke. Something to do. It's much better than sitting at home and watching TV."

Authorities allege that Allied Veterans made $300 million in profits by operating the illegal machines, but donated only about $6 million to charity. The investigation continues, and law enforcement officials say they are targeting other operators.

Legislators concluded that it was time to clarify an outdated and vague state law to target the illegal games that operated under loopholes. They insisted their goal was not to shut down senior amusement centers that operate legally.

Several local governments have recently moved to limit the number of Internet sweepstakes cafes, including Tampa and Clearwater.

"We were suggesting that we wanted to see what the Legislature would do," said Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office expects most businesses to cooperate if the law is signed.

"We are going to assume the existing cafes in violation will close voluntarily," said Sgt. David DiSano. "If not, we will consider action to close them down in accordance with the law."

Many owners seemed resigned to their fate.

Kasberg held a rally a few weeks ago, just hours after state House members passed the bill outlawing the games, with the hope of gaining some attention. He briefly considered the option again Friday before changing his mind.

"I guess I'm done. I'm a beaten man," he said. "I'm going to do my best to make sure these people are not in power again."

Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401.

Internet cafes brace for closure under new law 04/05/13 [Last modified: Saturday, April 6, 2013 12:33am]
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