WRAL Investigates

Cities try to crack down on gambling parlors

Posted February 8, 2010 5:59 p.m. EST
Updated February 8, 2010 7:15 p.m. EST

— Even before state lawmakers can draw up restrictions on the latest gaming business to take hold in North Carolina, municipal officials are using zoning rules to crack down on the so-called sweepstakes cafes.

Despite the state ban on video poker, law enforcement doesn't bother the owners of such establishments, which sell players Internet or cell phone time for a variety of games. Players often lose, but sometimes they win money in the online or phone games.

"It's a casino. It's a virtual casino," Wilson City Councilman James Johnson said. "They're feeding on the poor, in my opinion."

Johnson and other Wilson leaders said they weren't thrilled when the sweepstakes cafes started opening in town, especially those that operate under the guise of offering business fax and copying services.

The City Council initially issued a 60-day moratorium in December to block more sweepstakes cafes from opening. That gave the council time to enact zoning rules to limit the businesses to operating in industrial areas.

"By putting them in the industrial area of the heavy industry part of town, that puts them away from churches, schools and homes," city spokesman Brian Bowman said.

All existing sweepstakes cafes have three years to move into the industrial zone, and new ones must locate there immediately.

Rocky Mount officials are looking at similar zoning restrictions on sweepstakes cafes.

Even with the restrictions, critics said they worry about security in the cash-heavy operations.

"I don't think they're equipped to deal with these folks that may be in there to gamble, from a security standpoint," Johnson said.

Customers said sweepstakes cafes are legal businesses and should be left alone.

"Who am I to tell you how to spend your money? That's your choice," customer Linwood Dale said.

"We definitely have nothing to hide here. We welcome everyone who's going to come out and play," said Precious Batts, who manages a sweepstakes cafe in Wilson.