City Council Considers Legislation to Limit Internet Sweepstakes
The Athens Zoning Code defines an internet/sweepstakes cafe as “any premises upon which any computerized sweepstakes device is located for the use or entertainment of the public, whether or not such premises have other purposes of any nature whatsoever.”
Mayor Paul Wiehl said that these Internet cafes are essentially semi-gambling establishments that have “fallen through the cracks” of legislation because their activities are considered sweepstakes rather than gambling.
The new zoning code provisions would prohibit Internet cafes from being located within 1,000 feet of public or private schools, churches, residential districts, public parks, public libraries or any other internet cafe. The code also prohibits the establishment of an Internet café within 500 feet of any landmark or historic district.
The language of these restrictions is close to those regulating sexually oriented businesses, Wiehl said.
A public hearing was held Monday to address the public’s concerns regarding the potential of internet cafés operating within the city of Athens.
During the meeting, council members struggled to distinguish Internet cafés that merely offer internet service to the public and those that participate in online sweepstakes.
Christine Fahl, fourth ward representative, said it’s more of a “you know it when you see it situation.”
The council did recognize that legitimate Internet cafés can exist, and Wiehl said that the zoning restrictions would likely only affect those Internet cafés offering sweepstakes.
There are an estimated 100 operating establishments within the state, with many concentrated in popular cities throughout Northeast Ohio like Cleveland, Toledo and Seven Hills.
The cafés operate by selling phone cards or Internet time to customers and then providing sweepstakes entries. There are a predetermined number of winning entries paid out over a finite period, similar to a scratch lottery ticket that can be bought at a local grocery store.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine is pushing for legislation that would regulate all Internet sweepstakes cafés in the state. The legislation would require these businesses to undergo a pre-play certification process and obtain a license through the Casino Control Commission. Any violations of the license would result in criminal penalties.
“As Attorney General, I am working to protect Ohio families and ensure that our state doesn’t turn into the ‘Wild, Wild West’ with unregulated operators taking advantage of Ohioans,” DeWine said. “This new system will provide transparency and accountability in an industry that currently reaps millions of dollars in profits.”
There are currently no Internet cafés in Athens and Wiehl doubts whether the city is likely to serve as “fertile ground” for one.
“The trend now is that we don’t need Internet cafés because many restaurants in town actually offer wifi as an amenity,” he said. “So you don’t really need to have that. In fact, most people don’t want computers, they want their own laptops and palm pilots, etc.”
A business ordinance that would regulate these cafés in Athens has been drafted and is likely to be introduced to City Council by late July or sometime in September, according to Fahl.