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Wednesday, 04 July 2012 12:27

Maggie asked to loosen its strict cap on video sweepstake machines

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fr sweepstakesMaggie Valley’s planning board voted by a narrow margin last week to keep strict regulations on video sweepstakes machines in place even if it means giving up money the town could reap by taxing the machines.

In the valley, businesses are strictly limited in the number of the controversial machines they are allowed to have. Stores can only house one video gaming machine per 1,000 square feet of floor space. The type of sweepstakes parlors found elsewhere, with rows of the machines packed into a business, aren’t legal in Maggie.

The planning board voted 3-to-2 on June 28 in favor of maintaining its current standards. However, the town board will have the final say.

Planning board member Cathy Young was vocal in her disdain for the machines, saying she has heard stories and seen people spending their bill money to take a gamble on the games, which resemble video poker.

“It is very detrimental to families. I know it is. I have seen it with my own eyes,” Young said.

Fellow planning board member Billy Case agreed that the sweepstakes machines do not contribute to a family atmosphere. Allowing more machines would undermine efforts to make Maggie Valley a more family friendly town.

In spite their personal feelings on the matter, however, it was not within the board’s purview to say who should and should not use the devices, board member Greg Stephenson reminded the board.

“I don’t think it’s our decision whether they can afford it or not,” Stephenson said.

The board took up the matter at the request of Jo Pinter, a Maggie Valley resident and owner of Exit Hometown Realty. Pinter has been trying to rent vacant office space for more than a year and has now found a possible tenant: a man who wants to setup between 30 and 50 sweepstakes machines. However, under the current standards, the video gambling operation of that size is prohibited unless it was housed in a 30,000- to 50,000-square-foot building — a gargantuan footprint.

Pinter assured the board that if done properly, the business would not be a nuisance and would offer visitors more entertainment options. And, as the property owner, she would ensure that it would not become a blight, even going so far as to promise that she would shut the business down if it did not meet town standards.

“We do not want to be like the town of Franklin and have a bunch of small establishments strewed throughout town,” Pinter said.

During the June 28 meeting, board members took turns enunciating their views, whether to loosen the standards or leave them the way they are. They discussed lowering the square-foot threshold, capping the total number of allowed machines at one per every 500 square feet rather than every 1,000 and ensuring that establishments sit at least one mile apart to prevent a sudden overflow of video gaming.

“What I’d like to see is not have any possibility of saturation,” said Mike Seifert, a planning board member.

Despite the detailed talks, when it came down to counting votes, three of the five present board members indicated a preference for maintaining the status quo. 

“I feel we should leave this as it is,” said Board Chair Connie Davis.

The planning board may reconsider a change in standards next spring, Davis said. But, by then, the currently legal video gaming machines may ended up banned once again depending on how the state Supreme Court rules.

The controversial machines have been through an “Are they? Are they not?” legal battle during the past few years as state legislators continue to try to outlaw sweepstakes machines and as proponents of the contraptions continue to find loopholes in the law.

And, because of the constant flip-flopping, law enforcement agencies found themselves in a quandary, unable to enforce the state’s ban on the machines. Meanwhile, more and more video gaming establishments continued to crop up along roadsides everywhere.

Towns, seeing an outlet for more revenue and a need for regulation, have imposed their own land use standards regarding how many machines one business can house, where such establishments can be located and how much it costs to license the machines.

Pinter contended that the town will lose possible revenue to other towns.

Maggie Valley and Canton both demand $2,500 for the first four machines and charge $750 for each subsequent machine. Maggie collects $8,250 a year, while Canton makes in nearly $32,000 each year. Waynesville recently approved a fee of $1,000 per location and an additional $1,000 per machine

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