Skill or chance?

Published 9:30 am Thursday, April 13, 2017

AHOSKIE – Is it merely a game of skill and dexterity, or a game of chance where you could win – or be wiped out?

While questions over the legality of internet sweepstakes businesses have lingered in North Carolina for years, and despite state law outlawing them, the businesses continue to operate under perceived loopholes in statutes.

Confusion persists to this day over what exactly is a violation of electronic sweepstakes laws, many of which have been enforced inconsistently across North Carolina in recent years as sweepstakes business owners have changed software and promotional methods in an attempt to prove compliance.

Now it’s become something the Ahoskie Planning Board would like to have cleared up.

In February, Ahoskie Code Enforcement Officer Paul Vaughan appeared before the Planning Board seeking clarification on what is defined as an Internet Sweepstakes and Gaming café.

The question came about over the Red Room Arcade, located at 107 E. Main at the corner of Railroad Street.

Red Room owner Betty Boyer told the Planning Board at that February meeting that her business was an arcade gaming room, despite her having received a letter from Code Enforcement that claimed it was an internet sweepstakes café, and Boyer’s business did not open for the purpose for which it had applied.

Mid-East Commission planner Ben Rogers also appeared at the February meeting and recommended an amendment to the town ordinance removing all language that would not allow any more new businesses of this type, but current ones would be grandfathered in until the state of North Carolina resolves this thorny issue.

The Planning Board discussed Rogers’ findings and then found Red Room in violation of the town’s zoning laws and recommended it be closed down.

Meanwhile, at the March 14 Ahoskie Town Council meeting ,Councilman Justin Freeman and Town Attorney Buddy Jones suggested a public hearing on the matter at the April 11 Council meeting before the group discussed the Planning Board recommendation and then took action.

When the public hearing was called to order on Tuesday, Boyer was first to appear.

“When I first decided two years ago to have a gaming room on Main Street – the terminology internet sweepstakes is no longer used – I went to (then Town Manager) Tony Hammond and learned it had to be in the ‘B’ Zone, and that I couldn’t put one on Main Street,” she said.

Boyer said she came back later and suggested to the Town Manager a ‘gaming room’, one that would be different from an internet sweepstakes café.

“It’s based on skill and dexterity,” she maintained. “I know the games are different and I understand that people want to label them all the same, but the games are different.”

Boyer, who says she formerly owned a sweepstakes business in another county, admitted when questioned that in her current establishment there are money pay-outs, but say they are strictly legal.

“They ask you questions, and you have to use your mental skills and speed with these games to answer them,” she insists. “If you’re not smart enough or fast enough to answer the questions, you don’t win.”

Jones then presented Boyer’s original applications to run an arcade, though he did not state when, and in what order, they were filed.  While the two disputed whether computers were ever mentioned, Boyer persisted that Red Room is a gaming room for adults.

“When internet sweepstakes were here, you made an ordinance for them,” she noted. “I come in and say I’m doing a gaming room, and you don’t have an ordinance for me; but you want to label me back to internet sweepstakes.”

Vaughan says that the ordinance specifies that the business must be 1,000 feet away from a church.

“Under that definition, the Planning Board said she was not (far enough) away from a church,” said Vaughan, referring to the Crossroads Church on Main Street which Vaughan says is only about 480 feet from Red Room.

Boyer said when she applied, the church was closed because there was no pastor, but it since re-opened for services.

Councilwoman Linda Blackburn asked if Red Room was being governed as an internet sweepstakes café or gaming room.

“We don’t have any town ordinance on gaming rooms,” said Councilman Justin Freeman.

Councilman Charles Reynolds asked twice both if Boyer used computers in her establishment, and, if patrons played for money. 

“Of course they do,” she replied.

Ahoskie Police Chief Troy Fitzhugh came forward and stated two years ago he served letters to internet cafes in town – including one Boyer was a part of at that time – and subsequently these establishments were shut down.

“At that time they (NC Department of Public Safety) were telling me there was a letter I could provide to the cafes here in town, so I served them and shut them down,” Fitzhugh said. “But now they’ve come back, and they have now served (DPS and others) an injunction which has bound their hands at this time until they can come up with what law is going to stop them from acting as a game of chance to operate a computer with games on it.”

The chief said one of the reasons for the injunction against enforcement is because of changes in the software.

“Until it is resolved, that’s where we are at this time,” he stated. “And at the last meeting we had I spoke with (Jones) and we are waiting to hear what the final legalization is for each: a game of skill or a game of chance; the state has not yet decided.”

Fitzhugh said once the town gets involved there was a chance they could become part of a future injunction.

Jones recommended closing the public hearing and allowing Rogers to appear at the month of May’s Council meeting with his observations and share them with the Town Council much as he had with the town’s Planning Board.  In the meantime, Mayor Jimmie Rowe told Boyer she would be allowed to continue to operate.

Fitzhugh also stated that there had been an issue with parking on Main Street.

“There are a lot of people who are concerned, business-wise, that they take up parking,” the chief said. “So we’ve come up with an ordinance for two-hour parking, and we have been enforcing that by writing tickets, even though we have been challenged.”

Boyer said she informs her customers that after the two-hour moratorium, patrons must park at No Man’s Land Park area.

The final speaker at the public hearing was Ahoskie Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Amy Braswell who asked if the town had the ability to zone Main Street as the town considered most fitting.

“(This is) to make sure we have businesses that everybody can be in,” she noted.

“That’s part of what our zoning ordinances already say,” Jones replied.

Mayor Jimmie Rowe then said no action would be taken by the Council, and declared an end to the public hearing, to which Council unanimously agreed.