Last week, a sort of miniature gaming den tried to open on Frankford Avenue in Fishtown. This was supposedly an Internet café, but it really was a pop-up casino, offering games and cash prizes.
Thankfully, the property owner, feeling duped, has already yanked the prospective tenant’s lease.
Unfortunately, however, this is just the first hand of a growing retail sector’s play for Philadelphia.
Sweepstakes cafés are like Internet cafés, but instead of offering computers for browsing, reading e-mail, and checking Facebook, the machines come loaded with “sweepstakes games”: casino-like slots, poker, blackjack, and craps. Supposedly, the payout rules run closer to a lottery, or sweepstakes. Think of as a combination Caesars Palace and Publishers Clearing House.
These storefront operations have infiltrated the South extensively, and also have made their way to Massachusetts and Utah. Like regular casinos, they target the poor and the elderly, and have business plans designed to maneuver through a bevy of regulatory loopholes. Their license applications make them look like Internet cafés that offer, say, a daily raffle. While a sweepstakes cafe may, in fact, give a precise daily payout, the games are designed to extract as much cash as possible before pay-out. Sometimes they are open 24 hours.
According to Business Week, each individual unit grosses between one and five thousand dollars a month—or $250,000 monthly—to the tune of three million a year. Like the schemes behind the proliferating bandit signs, this is money being made—and let us be clear now—by circumventing the law and exploiting the most vulnerable. Sounds like a business made for Philly.
Now, the first hand has been played. This casino operator lost. But I worry–in a city of the vulnerable with weak enforcement of property rules–the deck is stacked and it may not be working in our favor.