Sweepstakes parlor closings leave some winners, some losers
Carol Anthony sat at in the back corner of a sweepstakes parlor in Maggie Valley one afternoon last week, getting her last fix of video gaming in before the next day’s ban took away what she claimed was her sole source of fun.
“This is all I do for entertainment,” said Anthony, perched in front of the blinking lights of a video game terminal, pushing the colorful buttons and hoping for big prizes on this last day at her favorite stomping ground, Vegas in the Valley. “My husband passed away six years ago, and I just don’t have anything else to do.”
Anthony said she plays the sweepstakes machines a couple of times per week, sometimes down the road at Peak Energy gas station, but that day the gas station had already unplugged its terminals, so Anthony found herself here.
She had been at it for a couple of hours already and was still working off the same $20 she started with. For her, video gambling is a relatively cheap form of entertainment, Anthony said, adding that she is “not stupid with it” and doesn’t throw away her bill money on playtime.
But, with the sweepstakes parlors now closed, Anthony said she will be at a loss.
“Sit at home, I reckon,” she said.
Darkness fell on sweepstakes operations last Thursday, Jan. 3, as law enforcement agencies statewide began enforcing a ban on the video gambling machines, leaving no device plugged in.
Law enforcement officers in Haywood County prepared to make the rounds Thursday morning, divvying up a list of known spots sporting sweepstakes machines — from full-fledged parlors to a gas station with a lone machine in the back. As far as Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed was concerned, the curtain closed on sweepstakes when the clock struck midnight on Jan. 3, the day set out by the N.C. Supreme Court in its recent ruling declaring sweepstakes an illegal form of video-gambling.
There had been 15 businesses with at least one sweepstakes machine in Waynesville. Only one, the Winner’s Circle in Waynesville, had not closed by the time Waynesville police officers made the rounds Thursday morning. However, the operator quickly shut down after the visit from police.
Unlike Haywood County law enforcement, the Macon County Sheriff’s Office gave business owners a little more leeway with the Jan. 3 deadline.
“The one thing I can tell you is that while Sheriff Holland expects compliance, we are not going to immediately try to seize machines at midnight,” said Brian Welch, attorney for the Macon County Sheriff’s Office. If operations were still open come Friday, the department would place them on notice and later fine them if necessary.
None of the law enforcement agencies planned to expend too much time or money on enforcement of the ban.
“We are not going to channel a lot of resources since we are dealing with a misdemeanor, a non-violent issue,” Welch said.
Proponents of the video gaming machines alleged that the downfall of the 700 to 800 sweepstakes parlors in North Carolina would result in drastic loss of revenue and jobs in the state. But, Ken Flynt, associate dean of Western Carolina University’s College of Business, deemed the claims hyperbole.
“It’s kind of a cottage industry,” Flynt said. “I think we will see some loss of jobs, but I don’t think the economic (impact) … will be substantial.”
Nor will the closing of the parlors cause a drain on the economy, Flynt said. Those who dished out money playing the sweepstakes machines will now spend it in other ways — and those dollars might now recirculate in the local economy instead of dead-ending at a machine.
“It’s just a trade-off,” Flynt said.
On a micro-level, Tami Nicholson, manager of Winner’s Circle in Waynesville and Lucky Horseshoe in Maggie Valley, had to lay off four employees, all of whom she described as single mothers who just want to work.
Tori Pinter, owner of Vegas in the Valley in Maggie, also had to lay off four employees.
“My main concern is my employees,” Pinter said, adding that none of them have had time to find other jobs. However, he also admitted that he saw the end coming.
“I knew it would be short-lived. It’s just a chance you have to take,” Pinter said.
So just before midnight Jan. 2, Pinter and his wife unplugged their 25 sweepstakes machines, shut off the lights and locked the door to Vegas in the Valley — possibly for good.
“It’s a huge loss for sweepstakes owners,” said Nicholson, who had 60 machines between her two locations.
Nicholson cited the positive things the sweepstakes parlors have done for Haywood County. Not only did her two businesses pay more than $58,000 to Waynesville and Maggie Valley for the right to operate its machines, but they also collected cans for Haywood Christian Mission during the holidays, she said.
“Everybody has made sweepstakes so negative,” Nicholson said.
Nicholson, like other advocates of the sweepstakes machines, argued that the ban is hypocritical given the state runs a lottery and allows gambling at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort, even live dealer games.
Some believed that legislators did not want anything rivaling the lottery or casino for revenue, and therefore nipped sweepstakes machines in the bud.
“We are not competition for Harrah’s,” Nicholson said. “We don’t have million-dollar jackpots.”
Sweepstakes parlor owners described their businesses as community gathering places, where people could meet, talk and enjoy some games.
“In a short period of time, we got to know a lot of people,” Pinter said.
Video gambling companies have vowed to find another loophole in the law that would allow sweepstakes parlors to operate again.
“This isn’t the end of us,” Nicholson said.
The storied road of video gambling in N.C.
The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled last month that state lawmakers ban on video gambling in its various forms, including the latest reincarnation known as video sweepstakes, is indeed constitutional. For years, legislators have been locked in a game of cat-and-mouse with video gaming operators, banning various forms of video gambling only to have it challenged in court, openly flouted or skirted. State lawmakers returned to the drawing board more than once to close up loopholes.
Meanwhile, law enforcement was stuck in the middle of the prolonged fight between the General Assembly and sweepstakes companies, not knowing whether to shut down the small gambling shops that have cropped up in even the most remote areas of North Carolina or to leave them be while the challenges played out.