NEW PORT RICHEY — About 100 fans of Internet sweepstakes cafes flooded the Pasco County commission meeting Tuesday morning to protest the recent raids that have shuttered some of the businesses.
The owners and customers told commissioners the cafes are a clean, safe place to have a little fun.
"As you all can see, the vast majority of the people who go to these places are retired," said patron Wayne Brown. "This gives us an opportunity to enjoy ourselves, get out for a few hours."
Customers who visit sweepstakes cafes purchase Internet time that they use to access casino-style sweepstakes games on computers in the cafes. Points won in the games can be redeemed for cash in the cafes. Some authorities, including Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco, say the cafes are gambling houses using computers akin to slot machines.
But sweepstakes cafe proponents point to a different state statute on game promotions. They say the cafes are legal because they are using access to sweepstakes games to promote their businesses.
Bruce Williams, the nationally syndicated radio talk show host based in New Port Richey, owns BlueJay Sweepstakes of Hudson. That café was shut down two weeks ago when 16 deputies raided the business and removed all of the computers.
"You guys have a way to solve this," Williams told commissioners, asking for a six-month hiatus for existing sweepstakes businesses.
That would give enough time, he said, for the Legislature to meet and pass a law to sanction the companies.
But County Attorney Jeff Steinsnyder warned that such a move wouldn't necessarily stop the raids.
"You passing an ordinance that grandfathers Internet cafes is not going to remove their (need to) comply with state law," he told commissioners.
Pasco deputies seized about 200 computers July 15 during raids of four sweepstakes cafes, including Bluejay Sweepstakes at 8127 State Road 52 in Hudson; Internet Cafe at 11720 U.S. 19 in Hudson; the Cove at 12124 U.S. 19 in Hudson; and Achievers at 2533 U.S. 19 in Holiday. No one was arrested at any of those businesses.
Pinellas County has led a similar crackdown on sweepstakes cafes, where owners have vowed a legal fight to keep their doors open.
Steinsnyder said he plans to meet with Nocco next week to discuss the issue and would give Pasco commissioners an update after that meeting.