Video sweepstakes businesses in Durham close as new law kicks in

Jan. 04, 2013 @ 07:44 PM

Video sweepstakes cafes in Durham closed this week as a law went into effect outlawing them as gambling operations.

Some people were happy to see the businesses shut down – as least temporarily – but not everyone was.

“The customers love it, and the businesses give them a job,” Linwood Clark, who owns Fish The Net on Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard, said Friday after he shuttered his Durham business and four others he owns in North Carolina. “Over 10,000 jobs have probably been lost in the state because of the new law, and those people will be on unemployment.”

Clark argued that his video sweepstakes machines are legal, because they let a customer know before the game begins how much they could win. Other machines, he said, don’t give the player that information until they’re already spending money on it.

Clark said that whether he’ll reopen depends on “how some municipalities decide to interpret or enforce” the law. He said lawyers are looking into those questions, “but we need to be sure” before a possible reopening.

The N.C. Supreme Court last month upheld a ban on video sweepstakes machines, which pay cash prizes, making them illegal throughout the state as of Thursday.

Sheriff’s offices have been told they can start enforcing the law, but the closure of many – if not all – of the cafes in Durham makes that moot for the moment.

In an email Thursday, Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews said several Durham sweepstakes businesses voluntarily closed, “probably to reprogram” some of their machines or remove those that “could be in question or violation” of the law.

Andrews said his office has been consulting the Durham County District Attorney’s Office, but that District Attorney Leon Stanback is out until Monday.

“Once he is back, we may have more of a definitive answer” on enforcement, Andrews said.

At the Durham Police Department, police spokeswoman Kammie Michael said most Internet sweepstakes cafes have closed. “If we do receive any complaints about ones operating, officers will follow up and find out if they are following the rules,” she said.

Clark said Wednesday was his last day of operation at Fish The Net, which opened in Durham in 2010. He said business had been brisk until about six months ago, when more competitors opened.

“This is a sound business that should remain legal,” Clark said. “And especially with the economy being the way it is, this is just going to create more turmoil.”

But not everyone likes the cafes.

At National Pawn beside Fish The Net on Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard, employee Regina Torres was glad to see the cafes close.

“It’s a good thing [that they closed], because customers come in, and they tell us how they’re losing their homes over gambling, and they can’t afford to pay their bills,” she said. “They come in and pawn something, then go back over there [to Fish The Net] and play again. And they end up losing their money.”

On a good day, she said, players may win big on the video machines and think their money woes are over.

“They come in and say: ‘I just won, so let me get my stuff out of pawn,’ ” she said. “And then, within a day or so, they’re back over here pawning their stuff again.”

“It’s sad, because these people are already struggling, and they’re over there doing that,” Torres said. “It makes the situation even worse.”

Coworker Nancy Garcia agreed.

“I see people here all the time and say: ‘Why do you go there?’ But it’s an addiction. They get addicted to wanting to win.”