By Patrick McCallister
For Hometown News
PIERSON -- None are knocking on City Hall's door, but the Town Council wants to make sure there's no welcome mat for Internet cafés.
At its last regular meeting, Tuesday, Jan. 8, the council asked the town planner, Jim Smith, and attorney, Noah McKinnon, to craft an amendment for the town's development regulations, expressly prohibiting the controversial establishments. The town's planning board will have to approve the amendment, and then it would go to the council for two public hearings. The council would have to approve it twice.
Debbie Bass, town clerk, said an Internet sweepstakes center snuck into town last year under the guise of being a phone retailer. Under the land-use regulations, the adult-entertainment facilities are not a permitted use, but are not expressly prohibited.
"There was one, but it closed maybe in September," Ms. Bass said in a telephone interview before the meeting. "Before it comes cracking around again, I wanted to address it. Everyone was up in arms about a gambling establishment."
She said there are no permit applications for any businesses that could be sweepstakes centers in or out of disguise.
The sweepstakes centers are considered gambling by some and social entertainment by others. They operate in a legal loophole. Rather than winning money by playing games, which is gambling under state law, customers purchase phone cards that double as sweepstakes tickets and find out by playing casino-like Internet games whether they've won anything. A narrow distinction, but a distinction that's bedeviled law enforcement and prosecutors.
The Legislature has discussed closing the loophole over several sessions, but hasn't yet. Much of the opposition to the sweepstakes centers was from veterans' organizations, such as the Disabled American Veterans, but it's evaporated.
In previous Hometown News interviews, Al Linden, the DAV's Department of Florida executive director, said veterans groups encouraged state and local lawmakers to ban sweepstakes centers, because they likely helped to kill bingo as a moneymaker. But the veterans' organizations changed their tune the last couple years.
"The sweepstakes have come in on every street corner, and they're basically taking our customers away," Mr. Linden said in 2012. "It's join them (by opening Internet cafés) or fold."
Counties, cities and towns must figure out how to prohibit or regulate the sweepstakes centers.
In a phone interview after the meeting, Mr. Smith said he's examining some of Volusia's cities' definitions of Internet sweepstakes centers and will have proposed language for the planning board to see by February.
"I think (the town council) just want to clarify their positions on it," he said. "They just wanted to make a very clear statement. It may be a little redundant, but it makes it clear it's not a permitted use in the community."