By Bryce Abshier – Contact Bryce@theVOSM.net
The City of Belleview’s eight internet cafés could meet their demise at a public hearing set for Tuesday, September 5, 2023. The hearing starts at 6:00 PM and the public is invited to attend.
At these businesses, patrons win points on electronic gaming devices. The points are then exchanged for cold, hard cash.
This public hearing comes shortly after Belleview Police Chief Terry Holland learned that some of these machines are illegal. At the most recent Belleview City Commission meeting, City Attorney Fred Landt detailed a meeting that he had with the police chief. “Chief Holland asked that I visit with him last week and unfortunately, he had to inform me that some operators of internet cafés here in the city came to him and admitted that they had machines in their establishments that they knew were illegal,” said Landt.
With this realization that crimes of illegal gambling are being committed in Belleview, Landt shared a list of challenges that are now presented to the city. “One of the things that was particularly concerning to the chief, and to I, was that our police department lacks the expertise to tell an illegal machine from a legal machine,” Landt explained. “It lacks the manpower to go out and test all of them that are in the city, even if they knew, and last, if they had to seize machines that are illegal, we have no way to store them because they’re quite large.”
While some locals have probably enjoyed these establishments, the allure of internet café gambling has also likely brought many out-of-town visitors to Belleview for good reason: they’re outlawed everywhere else in the county.
Marion County Sheriff’s Office officials explained that these venues were a frequent target of armed robberies. Sheriff officials described them as “truly a danger to patrons” and a county ordinance was created to prohibit these businesses in unincorporated areas of the county.
Belleview has not shared that same armed robbery issue, thanks to safety provisions included in the city’s municipal ordinance. These locations are required to keep their own security guards, for the safety of their patrons and to also not overburden the police department.
City of Ocala officials have long believed that businesses of this nature are violating Florida law. “We don’t have any that I’m aware of,” City of Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn replied to the Voice earlier this year, when asked if his city had any of these businesses. “They are against State Law, we shut them down if we find them. Belleview shouldn’t have any either,” Ocala’s Mayor Guinn wrote.
State authorities in Tallahassee shared Ocala Mayor Guinn’s thoughts that internet cafe establishments are violating Florida law. “Owners and operators of any “adult arcade” or “internet café” offering illegal slot machine gaming are subject to both civil and criminal penalties,” the Florida Gaming Control Commission’s Eric Carr told the Voice in an earlier interview.
One thing is certain – Belleview’s laissez-faire attitude towards these businesses has raked in plenty of greenbacks for the city. Since their arrangement was codified on June 1, 2021, the lucrative marriage between the City of Belleview and internet cafés has brought in tax revenue and donations unrivaled by any other business in town. These eight businesses, collectively, paid a total of $93,916.40 in city fees for the 2022/2023 fiscal year. The internet café owners also felt the need to donate even more money, over and above their taxes, to the city government. Belleview has collected $45,600 in donations this year alone from the cafés, along with $16,560 donated in 2021, and another $56,606 in 2022.
Reactions to these businesses in the community vary from person to person. “It’s less tax that I’ll have to pay,” explained one local business owner in favor of the cafés. Another Belleview retiree told the Voice that she enjoys visiting these places with friends and playing games.
On the other side of the coin, some have been vocal about their displeasure with the cafés. “Definitely has not improved our city at all… places look shady with security hanging outside of them,” wrote one local. “It’s embarrassing and sad,” said another.
Another local wrote that these businesses “make our small town look like some haven of gambling and drugs.”
“It’s really not a good look to drive through town and see armed guards sitting outside. Try to think about it from an outsiders perspective, if you were driving through a small town and you saw these ridiculous cafes, would you stop for dinner? Would you stop for gas? Would you stop for ice cream?,” the man asked.