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Internet sweepstakes cafes legitimate businesses, operators say

Westlake resident Al “Grams” Cestaro, 82, says he enjoys visiting Infinity Internet Cafe regularly, describing the computer sweepstakes games as relaxing. The Ohio legislature is considering laws that would regulate such Internet sweepstakes. (West Life photo by Kevin Kelley)

By Kevin Kelley

Westlake

The individuals entering Infinity Internet Cafe midday Friday didn’t look as if they were involved in any type of criminal enterprise. Most appeared to be 60 or older – of retirement age.

That’s the message Infinity’s owners wanted to convey to reporters they invited Friday as part of their lobbying effort against proposed legislation that would regulate sweepstakes gaming at such Internet cafes. House Bill 7 was introduced in the Ohio House of Representatives in January after the previous legislative session ended without any sweepstakes regulation becoming law.

Robbie Rogers, who also owns Time Warp Bar in Westlake, opened Infinity Internet Cafe next door about two years ago. The Westlake resident has since opened a second cafe in Westlake and a third in North Olmsted.

“We’re selling a retail product,” Rogers said of the cards with stored Internet time that can be used at one of the cafe’s dozens of computers. Time is sold at the rate of 25 cents per minute.

While users can surf the Internet, many play sweepstakes games, most of which appear like slot-machinelike games. But Rogers points out the games are not comparable to slot machines, as the payout rate is predetermined.

“It is in no way, shape or form a slot machine,” Rogers said, adding that the odds are available in a book for anyone to examine.

With the purchased Internet time card comes points to use in the sweepstakes games. Additional sweepstakes points can be purchased. Points won while playing the sweepstakes games can be redeemed for cash. Infinity provided a card, valued at $20 for 80 minutes of Internet time, to West Life for demonstration purposes. In about 10 to 15 minutes playing the sweepstakes games, The card was used up, earning 1,315 “prize” points, which could have been redeemed for $13 in cash.

What’s the draw of the Internet sweepstakes cafes? Why don’t people just stay home and gamble online with their home computers or tablets?

The cafes provide the opportunity for human interaction, said Infinity general manager Ralph Rosenberger.

“I think the social interaction is the draw over the smartphone or iPad,” he told West Life.

Many come in groups, he added.

“A lot of people just like to come here and unwind,” Rosenberger said.

Many are regulars and are known by Rosenberger and his employees by name. One such regular is Al “Grams” Cestaro, 82, who comes to Infinity nearly every day.

“I just like it because it’s a nice place to come,” said Cestaro, who said he doesn’t have a computer at home.

“It’s a relaxing, pleasurable game,” he said of the sweepstakes games.

Infinity provides its customers with free hot dogs available during the day and free pizza at night. Free coffee and soda are provided all the time.

Rogers, who serves as vice president of the Internet Sweepstakes Association of Ohio, a lobbying group, said he spends $70,000 a year on pizza alone.

Regarding the profitability of his business, Rogers said his five-year plan to realize a return on his investment on the first cafe he opened is on target. But House Bill 7 threatens that, he said, noting that he’s on the hook for a long-term lease.

The proposed legislation would require sweepstakes cafe operators with more than two terminals to obtain state certificates to operate and file monthly reports with the state. Cash payouts for sweepstakes could not be more than $10, a limit that most sweepstakes operators say would require them to shut down. The State Lottery Commission would take over regulation of sweepstakes cafes under the bill.

The proposed legislation is strongly backed by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. DeWine said Rogers’ contention that Infinity sells a retail product is not true.

“That’s ludicrous,” DeWine told West Life. “Everybody knows that’s not true.”

Very few customers of sweepstakes cafes use much of the Internet time they buy, DeWine said. The reality, DeWine said, is that the state’s 840 Internet sweepstakes cafes are actually “mini casinos.”

“They’re the only form of gambling in Ohio that’s not regulated,” the attorney general said. Some customers have reportedly developed gambling addictions, he added.

The attorney general said many such businesses send profits overseas.

“It is ripe for organized crime and ripe for criminal activity,” DeWine told West Life.

“One individual business might not have any of these problems,” the attorney general acknowledged. But the games need to be regulated, and criminal background checks need to be done on the operators, DeWine argues.

Rogers said he’s not opposed to any regulation of Internet sweepstakes gaming and would welcome a less severe bill expected to be introduced by state Reps. Matt Lundy and Ron Maag. Their bill is based on one introduced last legislative session by Westshore Rep. Nan Baker. In addition to regulating sweepstakes games, the bill would permit municipalities to ban such cafes outright or add additional regulations.

Baker said she would likely support a revamped form of the regulatory bill she introduced. The Westlake Republican said she would vote against House Bill 7 because sweepstakes operators will likely contest it in court.

The Ohio House will soon have two bills with which to determine the fate of Internet sweepstakes cafes, Baker said.

“It’s up to the majority of the legislators and what they feel their districts want,” she said.

 

 

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