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Roanoke Rapids betting on latest version of sweepstakes games

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.

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ROANOKE RAPIDS, N.C. — 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.

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.


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