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Luck about to run out on Internet cafés

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Legislature on the verge of outlawing online gaming establishments

By Mike Wright

CRYSTAL RIVER — Since the recent death of her daughter, Mary Spinner doesn’t like being alone.

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“If I didn’t have this place or the movies, I don’t know what I’d do,” she said. “I don’t want to go home.”

Mrs. Spinner, who turns 88 next month, likes to bide her time at the Lucky 7 Rivers Internet Café on U.S. 19 in Crystal River. She wins on some days, not on others, but always enjoys the fellowship.

“It’s a great place to meet friends,” she said, adding she also visits similar Internet cafés in Crystal River.

Mrs. Spinner may soon be forced to find entertainment elsewhere, as the Florida Legislature is on the verge of outlawing Internet cafés in reaction to allegations of an illegal gambling ring involving the Allied Veterans of the World charity.

Internet cafés allow patrons to play casino-type games online. Some places allow patrons to utilize the money from phone cards; at others, like Lucky 7 Rivers, patrons may play briefly for free or pay for Internet time.

Lucky 7 Rivers owner Ed Shomer cringes when he hears his games compared to casino gambling.

“This isn’t gambling. It’s sweepstakes,” he said.

The difference is the payout is already pre-set. He said it’s no different from buying lottery tickets or playing scratch-off games in fast-food restaurants. 

Shomer had been out of work about a year when a friend told him about the profit-making potential in owning an Internet café. He said he researched the industry and then signed a lease with company that provided the machines and games. He said the lease allows the company a monthly percentage of the income, though he wouldn’t say what that is.

“They get a significant chunk,” he said.

Shomer said he invested just less than $100,000 in preparing the business and is just starting to break even after opening in November.

Shomer has 36 machines and a steady stream of regular customers.

“When you have good games, the word spreads quickly,” he said.

Shomer doesn’t require payment to play, at least not initially. A patron may receive 100 free entries and win cash. He said if someone came in every day for the 100 free plays and left, that would be OK.

“They can play for 100 free entries for as long as they want to,” he said.

Internet cafés have popped up throughout Citrus County and the state and are not regulated. Shomer said it makes better sense to regulate the businesses than outlaw them altogether.

“If you want to tax us, tax us. We have no problem with that,” he said.

Shutting down Internet cafés as the result of the Allied Veterans charity scam, where organizers are accused of running a $290 million gambling business, is unfair, he said.

“If a drunk driver kills somebody, do you shut down all the bars in the state?” Shomer said.

Mrs. Spinner, who won a $120 jackpot last week, said she has gambled in Biloxi, Miss., and prefers the quiet peaceful atmosphere with friends in Crystal River.

“If I win, I come back the next day,” she said.

She isn’t happy about the Legislature’s plans to shut down the Internet cafés.

“I think it’s terrible for all of us who have a little place to go,” she said. “This is nice and handy.”

Contact Chronicle reporter Mike Wright at 352-563-3228 or mwright@chronicleonline.com.