As gaming businesses spread, Lee leaders to again weigh slots at Bonita dog track

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Slot can really pay off, as a $3.5 million jackpot in 2009 proved. Courtesy Immokalee Seminole Casino

Slot can really pay off, as a $3.5 million jackpot in 2009 proved. Courtesy Immokalee Seminole Casino

— Small, storefront gaming parlors appear to be proliferating in Southwest Florida — operating, some say, in a legal "gray area" — and they now factor into the debate about how much gambling is too much in Lee County.

Last year, the Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Track pressed the Bonita Springs City Council to regulate so-called Internet cafés. Ultimately, the city decided to wait to see what the Florida Legislature would do.

But the House and Senate disagreed over whether to ban or to regulate, so in March, the Legislature didn't pass a bill.

"It's been something that we've been expecting, quite frankly, the Legislature to get a handle on," Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson said.

For now, the subject falls back to local city councils and county commissions.

"Eventually we'll have to discuss it," said John Manning, who represents Cape Coral on the Lee County Commission.

Opponents of Internet cafés say the establishments expose a loophole in state gaming laws. Patrons pay to use a computer game that resembles a slot machine, which reveals whether they have won a sweepstakes. To critics, that sounds too much like slot machine gambling, which is illegal in most Florida counties, including Lee and Collier.

Local governments say they don't track the establishments, and numbers are difficult to find. At least 1,000 Internet cafés dot Florida's commercial landscape, advertising "win cash" or "casino jackpot" on strip mall facades.

Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson on NewsMakers 5-29-11.

Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson on NewsMakers 5-29-11.

"It's been something that we've been expecting, quite frankly, the Legislature to get a handle on," Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson said.

At Win-A-Lot Ca$ino on Trails Edge Boulevard off U.S. 41 in Bonita Springs, 10 computers occupy a wall in a room filled also with more traditional-looking slot machine games. Employees there declined to comment.

The businesses appear to be multiplying. In 2008, there were three casinos listed in the local Yellow Pages, and by 2011, there were nine. One state lawmaker, Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, called them a growing "cancer."

In Bonita Springs, at least seven Internet cafés and similar, but more widely sanctioned, "adult arcades" exist. Adult arcades differ in that patrons stop the reels themselves, thus making it a game of skill. State law caps prizes at 75 cents per game.

"We would love to be able to offer, if not slot machines, something like that," said Isadore Havenick, an executive with the Bonita greyhound track. "But we feel because it's a gray area of the law, it could jeopardize our legitimate gaming license. We're not going to take that chance."

In January, Lee commissioners gave an initial go-ahead for a November ballot measure letting voters decide whether the Bonita greyhound track should be allowed to offer slot machines. The commission is scheduled to discuss the issue again April 10, a county attorney said.

Track owners have sought to endear themselves to the community and say they will launch a public campaign.

"We anticipate strong support, but we expect vocal opposition," Havenick said.

He said local residents will have the first crack at new jobs, and Lee County and Bonita Springs governments will split 3 percent of all slot machine profits, common practice on the east coast. That netted local governments $1.18 million in 2011 from Havenick's Miami property, Magic City Casino.

"That's not small," Nelson said.

Meanwhile, the track has sought to limit the arcades and sweepstakes cafés. The company wrote a letter to Bonita City Attorney Audrey Vance in October, saying "continued proliferation of gray-market gambling machines may jeopardize these jobs and the tax revenue generated by the track unless Bonita Springs moves to regulate the machines like other local governments have recently done."

But regulation invites lawsuits.

In January 2011, Seminole County banned Internet cafés. Allied Veterans of the World, a nonprofit operating 37 facilities, said that violated free speech and challenged the ordinance. But on March 23, a federal court upheld the county's ban, which still faces court dates into 2013.

Hillsborough County also has a ban; Marion and Flagler counties are pushing for one.

Officials in Collier County said Internet cafés aren't an issue and weren't aware of any.

"We just like to play the games, and we enjoy the people and the atmosphere," said Cherly Brewer while playing on a 25-cent machine at Winners Vegas Style Games on U.S. 41 in North Naples, an adult arcade.

"I've never won anything big, but little stuff keeps you going," said Brewer, a seasonal resident of Estero.

Joe Candela, who owns the establishment, said people come to the arcade because staff makes patrons feel "like family" and "comfortable." If the dog track were to add slot machines, Candela said, people are going to play where they feel more comfortable.

"I don't have a problem with the dog track getting slot machines," he said.

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