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For good or ill, sweepstakes mania hits Charlotte 

You may have noticed that so-called "sweepstakes" businesses are popping up all over Charlotte, though some claim to be "business centers." They're often tucked into shopping centers in less-affluent areas of town with signs advertising Internet, faxing or copying services and others warning anyone under age 18 away. Many have mirrored windows, and some have bouncer-type people checking IDs.

What you probably won't find inside, though, are people doing any sort of business. You're much more likely to find people sitting in silence, staring blankly at banks of computer screens in dimly lit rooms.

The businesses morphed out of the now-illegal video poker machines you used to see in some gas stations and bars. And the North Carolina General Assembly has made it pretty clear that they're not interested in sweepstakes; technically they're outlawed. Closer to home, the Charlotte City Council has batted around the idea of enacting zoning regulations that would make it difficult for these types of businesses to operate. But the industry is suing to keep these establishments open, which is why you're not going to see a crackdown on these places any time soon.

City Councilman Warren Cooksey said the sweepstakes issue kind of came out of nowhere for the Council, and he's not sure the Council will take any action — at least not until they have had an opportunity to research the issue in greater detail.

Some local governments in North Carolina have attempted to tax sweepstakes machines by as much as $5,000 each, but industry insiders claim that amount is too high for most of the business owners, who often own dozens of the machines. And with the state law so hazy that even the Sheriff's office isn't sure what to do (they're currently deferring action to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department) it seems unlikely that the city of Charlotte will be able to do much either.

Further, while news reports in mid-June suggested the police are concerned that the businesses will attract crime, the CMPD hasn't been able to substantiate that claim.

Bob Houchin, of the Texas-based Hest Technologies, claims to have created the first sweepstakes computer system and said he welcomes unprejudiced taxation and regulations. "What the government should be doing is regulating the sweepstakes laws they currently have in place," he said.

According to Houchin, he's spent bundles of time and money on lawyers — he's one of the people suing the state and he's requested that the N.C. Supreme Court take up his case to speed the process along. He said he works hard to ensure that his sweepstakes machines are in compliance with state and local laws, and that includes hiring third-party companies to test them to ensure they are compliant. Other companies, he said, "are straight up out of compliance." He believes that "if the state were to enforce their standards and simply require a certification [to make sure they're legal] from one of a number of independent labs, then the majority of their problems would go away."

While there has been some concern about people being robbed while hauling around large wads of cash at the gaming centers, CMPD spokesperson Robert Fey said: "It might just be that they are in an area of town that has a disproportionate amount of crime already." He added that the CMPD "isn't sitting on our hands. We do have vice officers spot-checking some of these businesses to make sure they're not violating any other gambling laws."

Other detractors claim the sweepstakes businesses prey on the poor; so, out of curiosity, I visited more than a dozen of them. What I found is that many of the establishments are in low-income, minority neighborhoods, and that none of them are shy about offering their services, often displaying large, colorful signs with "Sweepstakes" in bold, red letters. (Though even when they also advertise themselves as "business centers," it was difficult to find the fax or copy machines they claim to have. But free, unsecured WiFi was readily available, as was free "wired" Internet access — which, it could be argued, is a good thing for lower-income communities.)

Customers sit in office-style chairs at the computer terminals, clicking away while goofy cartoon figures spin on the screens in front of them. Some places even offered drinks and refreshments for as little as 25 cents. And one had pig's feet on the menu for $1. A few patrons wondered how playing the state-run education lottery was any better or worse than spending time and money on sweepstakes games, where $10 can buy you about a half hour's worth of entertainment and several chances to win a few bucks. (I spent $10 and actually won $4, or lost $6 — depending on perspective.)

What wasn't clear to me is how anyone was winning big bucks, or how people would be paid if they did. As with the state-run lottery, winnings up to a certain amount — a few hundred dollars in most places — were payable at the cash register; though if one were to win more than that, they'd have to settle for a money order, cashier's check or "cash within 24 hours."

After I ran through my $10, I was offered 100 minutes of Internet access, although I could have used a different computer to jump online for free, and, again, the WiFi was open for anyone to tap into. The cashiers did make a point to check my ID, since you do have to be 18 or older to play; still, I never did get an actual phone card. In fact, there was no mention of phone cards at all, except for in the rules and regulations posted on the wall. I read them, but doubt anyone else did.

Each place had its own squirrelly charm, but no one seemed to be in danger of anything, unless you count boredom, lung cancer from the first- or second-hand smoke or obesity from the junk food and hours sitting in the dark, staring at a computer screen.

I asked several of the business owners, managers and patrons to comment for this story, but none were interested in doing so on the record, citing the same hazy laws that have the CMPD stumped. The employees and patrons seemed happy enough, though.

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