September 2, 2014

Elyria
Intermittent clouds
66°F
test

Ohio AG Mike DeWine to talk Internet cafe strategy

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has not been known to mince words when it comes to his feelings about Internet cafes.

With the backing of an appellate court ruling that the cafes are operating as illegal casinos, DeWine has vowed to shut down the industry across the state.

Today, DeWine will hold a briefing for law enforcement on how to investigate and prosecute Internet cafes for illegal gambling and explain how his office can offer assistance to local law enforcement.

It likely will mean that cities like Elyria and North Ridgeville, where such businesses have set up shop, will be pegged with the responsibility of ridding neighborhoods of sweepstakes cafes.

Elyria Mayor Holly Brinda said she is still formulating an opinion. There are roughly 820 cafe operations in Ohio, but just four within the city’s limits — two on Midway Boulevard near Midway Mall and one each on Chestnut Common Drive and Leona Street.

“I really haven’t made up my mind to whether they benefit the city,” she said. “While they do generate some revenue from us, we also have the responsibility of monitoring them, which costs the city money as well.”

Last year, licensing fees generated $84,850 for city coffers. City Council in 2010 passed legislation requiring each business to obtain a license for a cafe to open, with a separate license required for each computerized sweepstakes device. The cafe license is $5,000, while the license for each device is $30 per month.

At the beginning of 2012, five cafes were in business and that number went up to six for about four months when a shop opened and closed on Cleveland Street in the span of four months. A location on Oberlin Road recently closed.

“The only one that had problems was on Cleveland Street, and that was a complaint that they did not clean up trash in their back alley,” Brinda said. “We haven’t had too many other problems out of them.”

Internet cafes generally are storefront establishments that allow customers to buy phone cards loaded with minutes that can be used to play games on the Internet. The phone card keeps track of the winnings by way of points that can be traded for cash and prizes.

“We do have families that are economically challenged in this community, and Internet cafes can be the places they go with the hope of changing their luck, and that is not good,” Brinda said. “Plus, I have never been one to believe gambling or casinos are a good methodology for solving the economic issues of a city.”

The Ohio Senate has wavered on passing legislation to outlaw the cafes both recently and last year. That lack of movement is what prompted DeWine to increase his efforts to eliminate the cafes.

As a part of a coalition of proponents of Internet cafes, North Ridgeville Mayor Dave Gillock said he believes the establishments should be able to exist with regulation, as is the case in North Ridgeville, where roughly $110,000 is made annually from the businesses.

“We wrote our own regulations, and we don’t have a problem with them,” he said.

Gillock said that, despite what some believe, the cafes do not draw crime — there have been two incidents in North Ridgeville in three years. Instead, Gillock said, they bring income to the city, provide jobs and fill empty storefronts.

When the Ohio Senate begins having hearing on the legality of the shops, Gillock said he will be going down to Columbus to testify.

Like Elyria, the businesses have to pay licensing fees and equipment fees in his city. Gillock said North Ridgeville further regulates hours of operation and police officers walk through each of the city’s six businesses frequently.

“Our senior citizens view them as social experiences. They go up there to meet their friends, have snacks and spend their $20. For them, it’s purely entertainment.’’

Gillock said he will listen to whatever recommendations DeWine has on prosecution, but taking on a legal fight will be a state issue.

“I think anyone who wants to prosecute one of these will be tied up in court for several years and spend a lot of money, and we are not in a position to do that,” he said.

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.