Patrons hail adult arcade, others question it


Rocky Bork, left, and Roseann Koch play slot machine-style arcade games at Treasure Box Arcade on NE 16th Avenue on Friday. "We were in the area on the way home and decided to come in," said Bork.

Aaron Daye/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, January 5, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 5, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

Tucked in a nondescript shopping center in east Gainesville, the Treasure Box Arcade looks like a small casino.

Facts

The Chuck E. Cheese exemption

  • Game rooms operate under an exemption to Florida law intended for video game arcades. The law says:


  • "Nothing contained in this chapter shall be taken or construed as applicable to an arcade amusement center having amusement games or machines which operate by means of the insertion of a coin and which by application of skill may entitle the person playing or operating the game or machine to receive points or coupons which may be exchanged for merchandise only, excluding cash and alcoholic beverages, provided the cost value of the merchandise or prize awarded in exchange for such points or coupons does not exceed 75 cents on any game played."

The store is filled with 50 video consoles resembling slot machines. A recent night found more than a dozen players plopping in coins and cheering when they won jackpots that earned them gift cards worth $10 or more.

Representatives of the business say they're strictly following a Florida law restricting gambling. They're part of a trend of facilities that meet the letter, if not the spirit, of the so-called Chuck E. Cheese exemption to the law, which allows video game arcades to avoid prosecution.

But facilities like the Treasure Box, called adult arcades or game rooms, have faced problems throughout Florida. Communities have had different interpretations of the law - law enforcement has closed game rooms in Putnam County, for example, while locations in Starke have faced attention from city officials but been allowed to stay open.

The Treasure Box opened last month and is just starting to receive that kind of attention. Gainesville city commissioner Scherwin Henry, whose district includes the Treasure Box, questioned its location on NE 16th Avenue in a residential neighborhood near two schools.

He said the business is undesirable in a traditionally lower-income part of the community that has been the target of redevelopment efforts.

"Why is it that businesses that would not even dare to think about doing something like that in other parts of the city always want to locate in east Gainesville?" he asked.

Treasure Box general manager Michelle Gunter said the arcade benefits nearby residents. She pointed to the largely elderly and female clientele, saying the business gives them an opportunity to get out of the house, interact with friends and move their muscles.

The operation is designed to meet the provisions of a gambling-law exemption that requires games to involve skill and limit payoffs.

Players make bets as small as 8 cents and must accumulate a minimum number of games before they can win gift cards, meeting requirements that each game pay no more than 75 cents.

The law also requires machines to involve skill. Gaming industry consultant Tom Fricke said he's shown the requirement is met through tests between a veteran player and a novice player operating a machine with the screen covered and sound shut off.

"The veteran player is going to be better than the naive player with the covered screen every single time," he said.

Fricke has testified in cases against the industry throughout Florida. Some jurisdictions have pursued legal action against game-room owners, who face a third-degree felony charge and up to five years in prison if convicted of running a gambling operation.

The Florida House Business Regulation Committee held hearings last month on the proliferation of game rooms. Committee chairman Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, R-Miami, said the industry operates without oversight.

"It's like the wild wild West," he said.

He said the consoles are essentially slot machines because they're set to deliver a certain percentage of payoffs. He supports legislation to require the machines be tested to determine if they are games of skill.

Some game rooms have faced criticism for violating a provision banning alcohol as a prize. The Treasure Box awards Visa gift cards that can be used to make purchases, but requires winners to sign a sheet saying they won't buy alcohol. The game room also puts a sticker on the cards announcing the alcohol restriction.

Treasure Box owner Bert French is a Melrose businessman who sells ATMs. His attorney, Scott Walker, said French met with officials from the Gainesville Police Department, Alachua County Sheriff's Office and State Attorney about the parameters of the law.

"We're complying with the statute," Walker said.

He said French meant the business to be an entertainment option for residents.

"His intent is to provide an alternative for folks who want to have a night out of the house," he said.

A recent night found the business largely filled with elderly women who fiercely defended the operation. The business gives them free snacks and occasional meals like chicken wings with biscuits instead of beer, which is banned from the premises along with smoking.

Marie Carter, 72, said most players bet small amounts and come for camaraderie and enjoyment.

"It's a therapeutic type of thing for most of us," she said. "It's just so relaxing to come here."

E. Marie Rasberry, 72, said she comes two or three times a week and limits her spending to $25 per visit. She said some patrons had been traveling to Starke, so the Treasure Box allows them to save gas money and keeps them from making long trips at night.

Rasberry said patrons would typically leave the house only for church, so the game room gives them something else to do.

"There are a lot of people here that would be sitting home watching television," she said.

Gunter, Treasure Box's general manager, said the business is nothing more than an adult version of Chuck E. Cheese.

"It's like being a kid again," she said.

Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or crabben@gville sun.com.

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