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After ruling, NC sweepstakes parlors shut their doors

By Cleve R. Wootson Jr.
cwootson@charlotteobserver.com

The owners of the Woodlawn Business Center Sweepstakes parlor want dejected patrons to know exactly who is responsible for the gaming center being closed.

A sign scrawled on a dry-erase board hangs to the left of the door: “Closed due too police-DA’s office governor thank you.”

Mecklenburg’s sweepstakes saga took another turn Sunday – the deadline for operators to close before facing potential investigation and prosecution.

Some owners, operators and manufacturers of the sweepstakes machines have said they would change their software to comply with the law – again – but an informal survey of parlors by the Observer showed most had their doors closed Sunday.

A man who gave only his first name, Ashok, and said he owned the building that houses the parlor at Woodlawn and Old Pineville roads, told the Observer the ruling was bad for the area because the parlor is an economic engine.

Ashok said he has owned the building for a decade, but it sat empty for six years before the sweepstakes parlor leased the property. The business owners always paid their rent on time, he said.

“This particular property has about 38 employees,” said Ashok, who said he is familiar with his tenants’ operation. “Now they’re out of work. The government’s not getting any taxes, and now I have no tenants.”

There was another effect, he said, motioning to the bed of his pickup truck, which was lined with discarded beer bottles he’d just picked up. The parlor’s late hours kept vagrants and criminals away.

Sweepstakes games became popular in North Carolina starting in 2007, when the General Assembly made video poker illegal. The computer games feature vivid graphics and often resemble slot machines or card games.

The business model was tweaked to make the games fit the letter of the law. Customers buy time on a computer with the games installed on them, instead of feeding dollars to the machine. And technically, people could use the computers to surf the Internet or update a resume.

In summer 2010, the state legislature again took up the issue and passed a law to make sweepstakes illegal. Two companies that market the software challenged the ban as unconstitutional. Industry leaders became heavy political donors. Still, after years of appeals, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled in late 2012 that the state could, in fact, make the machines illegal.

The industry maintains that its businesses provide clean entertainment for a largely female and middle-age audience – as well as jobs in their communities.

Jamie Lyner, an employee at South Tryon Office Center off Carowinds Boulevard, said the sweepstakes parlor planned to close at 10 p.m. Sunday because of the enforcement, with no plans to reopen.

The parlor is usually open 24 hours a day. Lyner said business had been steady on Sunday at the parlor, which has 65 machines. After Sunday, Lyner said he plans to start looking for another job.

“I’ve gotta do what I gotta do,” he said. “I have no choice but to look for another job unless something comes around.” Staff writer Elisabeth Arriero contributed.

Wootson: 704-358-5046; Twitter: @CleveWootson
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