By Bryce Abshier – Contact Bryce@TheVOSM.net
A public hearing at Tuesday’s Belleview City Commission Meeting featured the first reading of Ordinance 2023-11, regarding Internet Café regulations. The ordinance provides for what will effectively be the prohibition of these establishments inside the City of Belleview.
During the hearing, nearly a dozen audience members rushed to the defense of their beloved cafés. There was just one problem: exactly zero of them resided in the City of Belleview.
If this hearing was any indication, the longtime suspicions of many seemed to be confirmed that these venues have served as magnets for out-of-town visitors to Belleview. They could likely not enjoy internet café gambling closer to home because these businesses were already banned in their city or county, in addition to being illegal in Florida.
Belleview Police Sergeant Michael Miley began the meeting with a presentation resulting from walkthroughs he conducted with an agent from the Division of Gaming Enforcement. Together, they inspected all eight internet cafes in Belleview on Monday, August 28.
“I’ve been consulting with this agent since July, after owners disclosed to Chief Holland that some of the locations had illegal gaming devices in operation. Following the walkthroughs last week, the agent has advised me based on his training and experience that all eight locations are illegal gaming establishments,” said Miley.
“All walkthroughs found that all of the establishments have illegal slot machines that are outlined in Florida State Statute 849.16,” explained Sergeant Michael Miley. He then played a damming and surreal video that showcased the inner happenings of one of Belleview’s Internet Café establishments. “It’s an expensive video game,” quipped an Internet Café employee who spoke quite candidly in the video. The employee then took the time to act as a tour guide of the business and explain how the various games work.
The employee went on to casually describe patrons losing money they needed to pay their mortgage and electricity bills. “Most the time you’re gonna lose,” she said comically. ”It gets real addictive, real quick. I’ve seen people lose their light bill, their mortgage,” the employee stated.
A nifty kiosk was observed by Detective Miley and the state gaming agent during the walkthroughs at several locations in Belleview. The kiosks work by allowing the user to receive a web link on their phone, so they can take the illegal gambling on the road with them. You could then return to the establishment to redeem your points for a cash payout. The state agent had received tips that such machines existed, but Belleview was the first place that he had witnessed these firsthand.
With the aroma of marijuana detected in the air of a standing room only crowd at Belleview City Hall, Internet Café enthusiasts plead their case to commissioners.
“I’ve been frequenting these internet cafés for a number of years,” said one man who would only say that he was a resident of Marion County. “Chief (Terry Holland) mentioned that… people from the video losing their light bills, their mortgage money, all that stuff, they do that buying scratch-offs too. You gonna shut all them places down too?”
Then a woman took the floor to speak, this time a resident of southwest Ocala. “There are so many safeguards in place… we have armed guards, we have security cameras,” she explained.
The woman went on to bring up letters that were received by these establishments from the Florida Gaming Control Commission. This fact had been previously omitted at Belleview City Commission meetings. “As far as the slot machines, those were removed from the majority of the businesses. I know you had 10 business days from the time of the letter from the gaming commission,” she stated.
Many guest speakers, none that were actual residents of Belleview, sung praises of the safety measures at these businesses. “We want to go and have adult entertainment without aggressive behaviors. That’s what these places are because they are monitored, they are secured.”
Coincidentally, this week’s Belleview Police report features an incident involving aggravated assault and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon at Belleview’s “Dragon House” – the internet cafe located in Northside Plaza. On August 30, Marco A. Mosby, (black male, DOB: 10/24/79), committed the offense of simple assault against victim Wendy Schleher, by motioning to strike her with a closed fist and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, and aggravated assault against victims Byron Durning and Jerry Jones, by being in possession of a firearm which he pointed at victims.
“We have top notch security, we really do,” another internet cafe proponent told Belleview City Commissioners.
Local businessman Travis Thorpe, one of four Belleview residents who spoke against the cafés, fiercely attacked the establishments. “Previously, I use to feel as though any business coming into Belleview was a good business, as long as they brought traffic in. I no longer feel that way, particularly about the fish arcade games,” said Thorpe. “Unfortunately, we tried. We gave these people a chance. It didn’t work. They knew what they were doing when they put illegal gaming systems in, they didn’t care,” he said.
Many proponents at the hearing painted the picture that these establishments were a safe haven for retirees, with no other safe place to enjoy their days. According to Thorpe, the demographic changes at these business starting in the late afternoons.
“It goes from little old ladies to degenerates and derelicts. The next morning you can go to places and look at the parking lots, they’re littered with cigarette butts, black and mild tips, little shooter liquor bottles, because all of them seem to be conveniently located near a liquor store or a gas station,” said Thorpe.
“They’re cesspools. They’re not supporting our little league teams, they’re not supporting our high schools,” he went on.
The next speaker, another Ocala resident, followed Thorpe to speak her piece to commissioners. “I’m one of ‘these people’. I think that’s kind of a slanderous thing to say about us, like talking down to somebody.” She explained that people suffer from all sorts of addictions, and internet cafés should not be targeted.
The elephant in the room, that again and again went unmentioned by proponents of the businesses: they’re operating outside of Florida law. If they really want to see these businesses available to the public, they might consider writing their senator; not pleading to the municipal government of a city that none of them call home.
The other few brave Belleview residents who showed up to speak in front of a mostly adversarial crowd shared similar thoughts. “It brings the traffic here that is not necessary for us who are here, for generations after generations, raising our children,” said another Belleview local.
“The benefits of it definitely do not outweigh the risks that we take every day. Our police officers are overworked. EMS is overworked. It’s not right,” she went on.
One Internet Café owner, who resides in Inverness and alleged to pay $30,000 monthly in payroll to his staff, told the Belleview City Commission that they are not being fair. “We only came here because we were welcome here. I feel like we’re not getting a fair shake,” he said.
Belleview City Commissioners were unanimous in their decision to pass the first reading of the proposed ordinance. A final reading will be held at the next Belleview City Commission meeting on Tuesday, September 19 at 6:00 pm. If passed, the establishments will be prohibited.