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Roanoke Rapids betting on latest version of sweepstakes games

Posted January 3, 2013

— Despite a state Supreme Court ruling upholding a state ban on video sweepstakes, the games rolled along Thursday at the Royal Palace Theatre in Roanoke Rapids.

State lawmakers enacted the ban in 2010, but court challenges put enforcement on hold until the high court unanimously ruled last month that the law didn't violate game operators' free speech rights. The court said local law enforcement agencies could begin cracking down on violators Thursday.

Attorney General Roy Cooper said Wednesday that he doesn't anticipate widespread Internet café raids across the state. Enforcement will likely vary across the state, depending on the discretion of local officers and district attorneys, he said.

Jay Hickey, co-owner of the Royal Palace Theatre, said Thursday he's confident that the sweepstakes games still operating in his business are legal.

"We've been in contact with local officials, city attorneys and our counsel just to make sure we are complying with the law," Hickey said.

The theater removed illegal games and replaced them with games that feature a new "pre-reveal" system. After customers pay, their winnings or losses appear on the screen before they choose to spin.

Myrtle Lee drove from Richmond, Va., to play Thursday.

"It's relaxing, you know, something to do," Lee said, adding that she doesn't mind knowing ahead of time if she's going to lose on a game.

"That's the chance you take when you gamble. It's to win or lose," she said.

For years, the $21 million theater has been on the losing end.

Theater owners say sweepstakes games important to business plan Theater owners say sweepstakes games important to business plan

Roanoke Rapids fired entertainer Randy Parton in 2007 as theater manager, and stagnant ticket sales for shows forced the city to raise taxes to help fund operations and pay off its debt on the facility.

"We have suffered for six years," Mayor Emery Doughtie said.

Hickey brought new management and a new name to the theater in September. To supplement the 1,500-seat theater, they installed sweepstakes games, which solidified the bottom line and kept 30 workers employed between shows.

The games produce local and state tax revenue by attracting visitors to Roanoke Rapids, he said.

"I never anticipate the games being more important than the shows. We're here to operate a theater," he said, noting country music singer Justin Moore is scheduled for a February concert.

Yet, he said, management will "have to re-evaluate the business plan" if they are forced to remove the sweepstakes games.

Halifax County District Attorney Melissa Pelfrey said she doesn't anticipate any action by local law enforcement in the near future. She said she's still sorting out details about the pre-reveal software.

State law prohibits the "entertaining display" of prizes on the games, and the pre-reveal system is the latest industry effort to get around it. Many observers said they expect a test case in another part of the state will send the ban back to the courts.

Gov.-elect Pat McCrory called repeated efforts to skirt the law "ridiculous," and he plans to meet with legislative leaders to see if loopholes in the ban can be closed once and for all.

Doughtie said the games are "very important" to the theater's success, so he hopes that the pre-reveal system will pass muster with law enforcement.

"They're trying to do, I think, everything they can to stay above board," he said of Royal Palace management.

11 Comments

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  • big_mikes Jan 4, 12:24 p.m.

    Good for Roanoke Rapids. Stick it to the NC Supreme Court and Legislators. The bottom line is, the state is running a lottery system which is overt gambling and to tell entrepreneurs that they cant venture into a business to make them money in the same arena as the state is ridiculous and unconstitutional in my eyes.

  • GK N.Ral Jan 4, 12:11 p.m.

    Why doesn't the government surrender, generate some tax revenue from these places and move forward?

  • Grand Union Jan 4, 10:13 a.m.

    "RR should suffer. Why do cities think they should get into private enterprise? The Raleigh Convention center is another example. If these places can make money - someone will build it. The town officials in RR that approved the building should have to reimbuse the city for that mistake."

    Skipped history? There is a long history of Gov. building things to get the economy and industry kick started.....thats how the first railroads in NC got built and how we ended up with RTP. It priming the pump.....and as RR found out it doesn't always work (and theirs was a particularly badly conceived plan to start with....)but thats no reason to not do it.
    The Convention centre is a good example....it likely will never make a profit as a stand alone business but since the city gains in taxation for all the hotel stays and meals etc it is profitable and good for the city overall.

  • Grand Union Jan 4, 9:57 a.m.

    "I don't understand the logic behind bothering these folks."

    It cuts State income from the Lottery because its competition.

    " They're not physically, socially, or economically impacting anyone but themselves."

    How do you know that? Gambling harms lots of people. Its an addiction like drugs.

  • superman Jan 4, 8:25 a.m.

    RR should suffer. Why do cities think they should get into private enterprise? The Raleigh Convention center is another example. If these places can make money - someone will build it. The town officials in RR that approved the building should have to reimbuse the city for that mistake.

  • paultaylorsr100 Jan 4, 8:25 a.m.

    I don't understand the logic behind bothering these folks. It's a person's free choice to throw away money whether it be on movies, NASCAR (my favorite), hunting, fishing, yard sales, etc.
    If they want to play these video games leave them alone. They're not physically, socially, or economically impacting anyone but themselves.

  • paultaylorsr100 Jan 4, 8:21 a.m.

    "I have to agree that the law has to be enforced equally. Are not local authorties mandated by law to enforce the law?"
    I agree with you. They are required to enforce the law. BUT, if they allocate manpower to address this issue they will be scorned just as they ar when they try to address marijuana possession/distribution/ or use.

  • anonemoose Jan 3, 7:38 p.m.

    Let's see....The gambling games (even by Myrtle Lee's admission) brings in buku bucks for Roanoke Rapids by paying off the theater, so you know any excuse not to shut them down will work.

  • Rebelyell55 Jan 3, 6:58 p.m.

    Don't think it'll work, some have been running these type games for over two years under court order that was shot down by the state court.

  • trekkie13 Jan 3, 6:53 p.m.

    I have to agree that the law has to be enforced equally. Are not local authorties mandated by law to enforce the law? I understand budgetary constraints buy until a federal court were to issue a stay then the NC Supreme Court has ruled on the matter no ifs ands or buts.

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