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Morrow to consider regulations for Internet cafes

The Morrow City Council is expected to weigh regulations on Internet Cafes that would bar “Lady Luck” from entering the city — at least through computers at restaurants.

The city has had a moratorium on allowing Internet Cafes for the last year. The moratorium was put into place until the city could come up with a permanent way to address the issue of businesses showing up in the city, and calling themselves “Internet Cafes,” when the reality could be that the computers in these establishments were being used for Internet gambling.

Earlier this month, city officials announced tentative plans to introduce an ordinance, next month, that would place heavy regulations on such businesses. City Attorney Laurel Henderson recently told councilmembers that businesses seeking to call themselves an “Internet Cafe” would now have a set of rules to abide by, which means the moratorium could be lifted in early 2012.

“It’s just an attempt to reach those kinds of businesses, and provide a regulatory framework that will winnow out the illegal activities from the legally permissible activities,” Henderson said.

The City Council is expected to receive the ordinance for its first review, at the governing body’s Jan. 10 meeting, according to City Manager Jeff Eady. He explained that the council would have to review the ordinance again at its Jan. 24 meeting, before a vote to approve the proposed law could be taken.

Henderson said the problem with businesses that call themselves “Internet Cafes,” is that they, sometimes, are fronts for gambling, which is illegal under state law.

She explained that there are “places that are going around trying to rent space to do ‘fake’ gambling, that’s not really fake. Sometimes, they call themselves ‘Internet Cafes.’ Sometimes, they call themselves ‘Sweepstakes Cafes,’ and, theoretically, you can play games for free.”

These businesses make their money when people rent time on a computer in the “cafe,” she added. “They are supposed to offer you tokens, or not valuable compensation if you win,” said Henderson, before adding that the payout is really money. “The reality is people can rack up as much as $500,000, sometimes, on these games.”

Eady and Henderson said the city has received a business license application to open such a “cafe” in the past. That application prompted the moratorium to be put into place.

“Do we have an application for one to come into the city [at this time]?” Councilmember Virlyn Slayton asked the city manager and city attorney during a Dec. 13 work session.

“Not currently, but we did several months back, and the council put the moratorium in place, and they went away,” Eady said. “It may be that once they see that we’ve passed an ordinance, they may go away completely, or they may come back and adhere to the ordinance.”

The proposed ordinance, Henderson said, would strictly forbid any gambling from taking place in the establishment. She also said it would mandate that the businesses:

• Post anti-gambling warning notices in each computer carousel.

• Have all computer carousels in a single, open area.

• Not “screen” off computer carousels from other patrons of the cafe.

• Serve “real,” traditional cafe-oriented food, and not just “a rack of potato chips.”

“It sounds like you’ve pretty much got every angle covered,” Councilmember Jeanell Bridges told Henderson, after the attorney read the list of regulations to be included in the ordinance.

Henderson said, in response: “You try to stay ahead of the businesses. They come along with a new system, a new scheme and you have to try to fix something to address that, so this is at least one weapon in the armory. It’s not the be-all, and end-all, but it takes care of one particular kind of problem.”