By Bryce Abshier
An abundance of “Fish Games” businesses, otherwise known as “internet cafes”, “senior centers” or “adult arcades” have come to call Belleview home since late in 2019. These venues are arcades where players can earn points on gambling-like electronic devices. The points can then be redeemed for prizes. All of the glimmering lights and sounds of a casino floor can be found inside, as patrons sit around large electronic wagering “fish tables”.
They are all over town, nearly on every corner. Highway 441 in Belleview is littered with them. According to Belleview city officials, a whopping eight of these businesses are currently open inside of Belleview city limits.
Are they legal?
That depends on who you ask. City officials in Ocala say no, they are in violation of state law. As such, Ocala will actively shut these types of businesses down. These businesses are also prohibited in unincorporated areas of Marion County, according to the Marion County Sheriff’s Office.
“The reason they are in Belleview and not in other unincorporated portions of Marion County is that there is a county ordinance forbidding them,” explained Lieutenant Paul Bloom, MCSO Public Information Director. “They became a large problem and truly a danger to patrons because of the frequency of armed robberies occurring at these places. Ocala has removed them but Belleview has not,” said Lieutenant Bloom.
Because businesses that fall into this category aren’t able to open anywhere else in Marion County, Fish Games players likely travel from all over to partake in what Belleview has to offer.
Belleview’s municipal code, Section 14-502 (a), acknowledges that the legality of these businesses is questionable. “Despite questions as to legality of internet cafes such establishments exist and are present in the City of Belleview,” the code reads.
Proponents of these businesses say they are offering skill-based amusements, like at a Chuck E. Cheese, and they should not fall under Florida gambling oversight. Albeit the differences between these electronic games and those found at actual casinos are considered arbitrary by most.
Over $100,000 Donated To The City
Evidently the Fish Games establishments of Belleview are extremely generous and philanthropic towards the city government. Not including the annual fees and business taxes, city officials report over $100,000 in additional donations over the last three years made by the various cafes ($16,560 in 2021, $56,606 in 2022 and $32,000 to date in 2023). Again, this is over and above the regular city fees that these businesses pay.
According to the city, these funds have been used for the BBQ grills at Lake Lillian, the single basketball hoop at the community center, and a turkey give-away by Belleview Police in 2021. Reportedly, the funds are also used to offset the cost of the monthly Foodie Fest and the annual “Shop With A Cop” Christmas event for underprivileged youths. Some of the funds were also used in a $49,000 project to buy new bronze signs for three city buildings.
The fee structure for those who operate an internet cafe includes a business tax of $52.05, an annual administration fee of $5,000.00, and an annual fee of $100.00 per game device. For the 2022/2023 fiscal year, Belleview collected $53,500 in device fees, $40,000 in annual registrations and $416.40 in business tax.
Five Years To Be In Compliance
According to the city of Belleview’s municipal code, if an internet cafe closes, another will not replace it due to an ordinance signed June 1, 2021. The ordinance limits the number that can be open inside the city to five, and requires these businesses be in stand-alone buildings. If not in compliance by June of 2026, they must close.
Belleview’s municipal code also outlines a mountain of regulations that these businesses must meet. These include requiring a licensed security guard, limiting hours of operation from 11:00 am to 2:00 am, and location limitations for proximity to churches, schools and other internet cafes.
Despite their problematic reputation, along with warnings of danger from the sheriff’s office, Belleview Police only report a total of 17 disturbance calls to these businesses in the last two years.