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Bingo's life in county uncertain

Pasco's new bingo ordinance has rid the county of all commercial bingo halls.

It may be only temporary _ one of the halls turned down for a bingo license isn't giving up _ but this week marks the first time since the rules were passed eight months ago that no commercial halls are open for business.

"It says the ordinance works," said County Commissioner Ed Collins, the chief advocate for adopting local rules stricter than existing state regulations.

To Gerrie Brown, director of West Pasco's American Red Cross chapter, it says the county is "harassing" charities out of a valuable fund-raising mechanism.

The Red Cross is the charity behind Towne Centre Bingo in Port Richey, the commercial hall that has waged the strongest fight against the rules. The Red Cross and several other charities have a suit pending against the county to overturn the ordinance. And Brown plans to reapply for a license, since the county rejected Towne Centre's first application.

But Wednesday, after being reached following County Administrator John Gallagher's message that she might face some problems reapplying, Brown was distraught.

"They're harassing me to death, and I'm just trying to do this for my charity," said Brown.

Towne Centre was closed last weekend, though workers expecting it to reopen distributed discount coupons for patrons to return.

Oaks Bingo at the intersection of State Road 52 and Little Road has been closed for several weeks. And though a sign on the door says it will reopen, county officials said Wednesday they were unaware of anyone applying for a license to operate bingo there. Holiday Square Bingo on U.S. 19 in Holiday also has been closed since the county rejected its application earlier this month.

The bingo rules are designed to keep profit-minded organizations from raking in cash from big daily bingo games while giving a token amount of the profit to a sponsoring charity. By restricting the big halls, the county hopes to help smaller bingo operators who use most if not all of their profits for charitable purposes.

Among other things, the ordinance requires licenses both for non-profit organizations running games and for anyone leasing property where bingo is played; it requires background checks for people involved in the games; it limits organizations to no more than two bingo sessions weekly; and it requires that organizations involved in bingo to have been in Pasco for at least three years.

That last requirement has turned out to be the toughest for several organizations applying for bingo licenses.

Pasco rejected Holiday Square's license application, because the organization applying to run the games, the League of Mercy Association, is based in Hillsborough County. Likewise, county officials rejected the application for Towne Centre because the firm leasing the hall to the Red Cross, Pondella Hall for Hire, is based in Fort Myers and has been working in Pasco for only two years.

Pondella, which managed the games at Towne Centre and operates bingo throughout Florida, actually leases the 16,650-square-foot building off Ridge Road and U.S. 19 from a Montreal-based firm that has owned the property for more than three years, Whitney Management Corp.

Brown hopes to comply with the county's bingo rules by changing the arrangement so that Whitney rents the building directly to the Red Cross. Both Whitney and the Red Cross will apply for licenses. Meanwhile, she said Pondella will operate a snack room in the bingo hall so that it maintains a presence in Pasco and eventually can meet the three-year residency requirement.

The Red Cross has received $38,000 in bingo proceeds since June, and Brown said she can't afford to lose that funding.

She did not know whether Towne Centre would be able reopen this weekend. And county officials said they will need to see more information before determining whether that arrangement meets Pasco's requirements. Collins has his doubts.

"They still have some hurdles to clear," he said, expressing surprise the chapter's board of directors would allow the Red Cross to sign such an expensive lease when the future of bingo at that property is in doubt.

The three-year lease requires the Red Cross to pay $66,000 annually, or $5,500 a month. But Brown said Pondella is guaranteeing the lease, and her directors approved the arrangement.

Pasco County is one of the few counties in Florida with a local bingo ordinance, and county leaders acknowledge they still are feeling their way along. Minor problems and concerns over possible loopholes have led to several revisions in recent months.