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Adult arcade customers fear shutdown
Adult arcade customers fear shutdown: Customers at this south Fort Myers adult arcade question why the Legislature wants to shut down all Internet cafe and adult arcades. Customers say The Vegas Experience business is their second home. Video by Chris Umpierre
Internet cafe sign / www.jupiterimages.com

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Mary Bartlett is losing sleep thinking about the Legislature’s upcoming decision on banning gambling establishments known as Internet cafes and adult arcades.

“I’m scared to death,” said Bartlett, who has worked the past seven years as a cashier and cook at an adult arcade called The Vegas Experience, in south Fort Myers. “If they close us down, we’d all be out of a job. We’d all have to start looking for jobs, and after seven years I don’t know where to look.”

Bartlett is one of an estimated 125 Internet cafe and adult arcade employees who will lose their jobs in Lee and Collier counties if the Legislature outlaws the industry. The House is poised to approve the anti-gambling measure, HB 155, today and send it to the Senate. Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville predicts the bill will be sent to Gov. Rick Scott before the session ends in early May.

The Legislature is going after the 1,000 strip-mall casinos in the state, with 25 in Lee and Collier, after an investigation into Allied Veterans of the World. The charity was accused of running a $290 million illegal gambling business that directed most of the proceeds into its owners' pockets.

“Will I live on if they shut me down? Yeah,” said Michael Strawbridge, who owns an Internet cafe in Cape Coral and about 50 in California. “But it’s the 5,000 people in the state who are working for $12 to $13 an hour that are going to be the ones that suffer. Look, there are no jobs here.”

Strawbridge, who owns Cyber Sweepstakes in Cape Coral, has seven employees. He would have to shut down immediately if Scott signs the bill. Strawbridge’s business sells long-distance phone cards that can be swiped at slots-like video machines.

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, the sponsor of the House bill, said the bill clarifies the existing law for law enforcement, as the electronic games used by the strip center businesses have always been illegal under Florida law. Trujillo’s bill redefines the loophole that the cafes and adult arcades have used in declaring their machines “games of skill” rather than games of chance, attempting to make sure that companies such as McDonald’s can continue to use giveaway games.

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“How can it be illegal if my sweepstakes business is licensed, registered and bonded with the state of Florida at right this minute?” Strawbridge said. “The legislators are going to let McDonald’s and Coca-Cola run their under-the-bottle sweepstakes, but anybody who has been creative enough to use the gaming industry’s images to promote their business can’t. How ignorant is that?”

Strawbridge said his business isn’t the money-making machine the state says it is. He said his business made an $80,000 profit last year. He said he spends about $6,000 a month for food so he can feed his customers, who get free food and snacks.

“Legislators are saying I prey on the poor and elderly when every convenience store offers the state lottery,” Strawbridge said. “If you want to get rid of my business, be honest about it. The reason is because my business attracts customers who play the lottery.”

The state has estimated that $1 billion in Internet cafe proceeds have gone untaxed. The same sum played on the Florida Lottery would have resulted in $350 million more for Florida education.

Karen Kopp, who owns The Vegas Experience, hopes legislators will differentiate her arcade business with Internet cafes, which pay cash. At adult arcades, customers play to win gift cards . Customers win cards for grocery stores such as Publix or restaurants such as Olive Garden.

Kopp said she spends $20,000 a week on gift cards. Most of her customers are senior citizens. Many come in using walkers. They are attracted by the friends they make at the arcade.

“My employees will be unemployed, but more disheartening to me will be that my customers have no place to go,” Kopp said. “My customers are not bar-goers. They don’t hang out at bars. Once they run through the gamut of their local clubhouses, they have no place to go.”

Arcade customer Bobbie Capps doesn’t know why the state is throwing out the entire industry because of one bad company —Allied Veterans of the World. Allied Veterans ran more than 50 Internet cafes. Their probe already has led to 57 arrests. The investigation also resulted in Jennifer Carroll, who had consulted for Allied while in the Legislature, to resign as lieutenant governor March 12.

“The majority of these people play 8-cent spins,” Capps said. “It’s nice for the seniors to get up and out. This is not a casino. It’s like family, a second home.”

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