Susie Gonzales spent thousands of dollars outfitting a section of a Remount Road club with video “sweepstakes” machines in hopes of building a lucrative business off the popular pay-to-play games.
But just a month after opening her fledgling Internet cafe beside Caliente Discotheque, Gonzales fears the state is about to run her out of business.
That’s because the S.C. House of Representatives approved a bill Wednesday that supporters say clarifies that sweepstakes machines like the ones Gonzales owns represent illegal video gambling.
The measure aims to close loopholes that business owners cite to operate so-called sweepstakes cafes. Another vote would send it to the governor. The Senate passed it in January.
“I’m really, really disappointed,” said Gonzales, who also is part-owner of a similar cafe on Ashley Phosphate Road. “Why can’t they just let people spend their money the way they want to? Why can’t they just regulate it, tax it and let the business grow?”
The S.C. Supreme Court outlawed video poker machines more than a dozen years ago, imploding what was a $2.8 billion-a-year industry at its height.
Some conservative state lawmakers see the current sweepstakes games as nothing more than “video poker 2.0.” But until now, they haven’t been able to stop the machines from spreading into convenience stores, bars and Internet cafes from the mountains to the coast.
As is now done, players can sit at an assortment of computers and buy Internet access. Most of the screens are hooked directly to games similar to the long- defunct video poker games.
Supporters say a big difference in some of these games is that as a “sweepstakes,” the odds of winning any game are pre-determined, and that the outcome is set, no matter what the players do.
Owners, players and other supporters of the machines argue that the games are harmless fun and that the state is being hypocritical in trying to stamp them out while promoting gambling through the S.C. Education Lottery.
“If they are going to shut us down, then they should also stop the scratch-offs, the lottery and bingo, because it’s the same exact thing,” said Candy Rice, manager of the B&G Sweepstakes on McMillan Avenue.
That sentiment was echoed by several players The Post and Courier spoke with.
Alesia Wright, 29, of North Charleston, said she visits an Internet cafe just about every day, dropping about $100 a week on the games. On Wednesday she spent time in a cafe at a Rivers Avenue shopping center, nibbling chips and sipping soda while playing a slot-style game.
“It’s just a way for me to get out of the house,” she said. “I lose more than I win.”
So why does she come back? “I just enjoy doing it,” she said. “It’s fun to do.”
The House vote came a week after 50 people were arrested in South Carolina and other states as part of an investigation into a Florida-based charity accused of running gambling parlors with computer slot-machine-style games. Investigators said the group’s executives gave little to veterans and lavished millions on themselves.
Attorneys for the group said it ran legal sweepstakes, much like contests sponsored by fast-food restaurants or retailers.
Supporters of sweepstakes cafes in South Carolina have used that same argument.
But it appears the tide is turning against them.
The city of Charleston has taken steps to limit where the sweepstakes rooms can operate, while Goose Creek chose to ban them outright.
In October, Charleston County sheriff’s deputies raided an Internet cafe in Ladson, confiscating the machines and recovering a stash of money. Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said he did so after conferring with the state Attorney General’s Office and the State Law Enforcement Division.
This month, Berkeley County Sheriff Wayne DeWitt gave businesses in his jurisdiction two weeks to get rid of any illegal sweepstakes and gaming machines or risk facing prosecution.
His spokesman, Dan Moon, said he had no information Wednesday on when that crackdown will begin.
Gonzales, the Remount Road operator, said some of the Berkeley County cafes already have gone out of business because of the threat.
“I have friends from Berkeley County who lost their jobs because of this,” she said. “I had promised to give them jobs, but how can I now? It makes me sad.”
Rice, from the McMillan Avenue cafe, said eight workers stand to lose jobs at her establishment if the state outlaws the sweepstakes machines. She said the move also would disappoint her customers, who include state workers, professionals and a retired SLED agent.
“They just come here to unwind and relax,” she said. “All we are asking is to stay in business, keep our jobs and keep our customers.”
Andrew Knapp and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.