Michelle Grant, who oversees the daily operations of Vegas Games on Lee Blvd., says she was afraid she would lose her job if Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation outlawing Internet cafes and strip mall game parlors in the state. The Florida Senate had voted 36-4 to ban electronic gaming devices earlier and the Florida House also voted earlier, 108-7 to shut down the operations.
On April 10, Grant's worse fears were realized. She lost her job as did others working in other gaming parlors in Lehigh and throughout Lee County. The doors were closed at Vegas Games and a handwritten sign that read "Closed Until Further Notice" was posted out front. The gaming parlor was next to the Lee County Tax Collector's Office in the Delacruz Plaza and a noticeable lack of parked cars is apparent.
The governor's signature on the bill to ban gaming parlors also cost three other women who work at the gaming site their jobs, too. With other gaming sites in Lehigh, perhaps up to a dozen people may have been put out of work, Grant said.
Donna O’Brine of Lehigh, prepares to play a game on a computer at Vegas Games on Lee Blvd. in Lehigh. She said she comes to enjoy herself seven days a week usually in the mornings.
There were at least three or four other Internet and gaming parlors in Lehigh. But Vegas Games owner Dan Doty, said he was looking into loopholes in the legislation before the governor signed the bill, but he said throughout the state as many as 20,000 people have lost their jobs. Others put the figure closer to 12,000 people.
Those who played at his game parlors didn't win cash, but instead the winnings were put on plastic debit cards which people could use to buy items elsewhere. Doty checked into the parlors he owns in Lehigh each morning.
"It Gov. Scott signs that bill this week," he said in an interview, it could mean putting 20,000 people out of work across the state. It doesn't make any sense."
Lis McAlister of Lehigh had brought her 98-year-old father, George Douber, to Vegas Games several days a week to play the machines.
"It's his enjoyment, his entertainment. He is not happy about the possibility of Scott and the legislature closing them all down. Not only does he get a lot of fun out of it, but I often stayed and played the games, too," McAlister said.
Vegas Games and the others in Lehigh didn't lack for customers. On any given day, the game parlors were nearly filled with those who spent a few hours a day enjoying themselves. Food was often available at the parlors for the players.
Donna O'Brine of Lehigh, who was playing at one of the computer games before Vegas Games shut down, agreed that she thought it was unfair to end something that gives people so much enjoyment.
"'You're taking money away from the businesses and people will be laid off and it will be very difficult in today's economy to find a job. And for many of the women working in Lehigh's game parlors, they are mothers supporting a family alone."
O'Brine said she loved going to Vegas Games and often went there for a short while seven days a week, usually in the mornings.
The bill to shut down such gaming parlors across the state came about because of an ongoing racketeering probe of Allied Veterans of the World charity that is being accused of operating a $290 million illegal gambling business that directed most of the proceeds into its owners' pockets.
The investigation cost the lieutenant governor of Florida to give up her job because Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll was asked by the governor's chief of staff and general counsel of her involvement before she resigned over the Allied Veterans charity scandal.
Law enforcement agents said in March they were investigating the charity which is accused of operating a gambling ring involving illegal slot machine-style casinos. The former lieutenant governor had done some public relations work for the charity before she was elected to the second highest post in the state's executive branch.
However, it was reported in news accounts that Carroll didn't know anything about the gambling and that agents told her she was not under investigation.
Michelle Grant at Vegas Games in Lehigh said people who came to enjoy playing games there would go to Immokalee instead to the Indian reservation gambling site.
"They will be taking away a lot of our business and that of the other gaming places here in Lehigh. We have had a lot of season people come here to enjoy the games. If people go to Immokalee, they will be subject to winning or losing cash, that's real gambling. If they don't want people to gamble, why do we have a state lottery? And we have Bingo. Isn't that gambling? But it is not against the law," Grant said.
Frank Mann, Lee County commissioner, who comes from the east side of Lee County and represents Lehigh Acres, said he has never gotten any complaints about the local strip-mall casinos in the county or in Lehigh. And according to reports, the Lee and Collier County sheriff's offices have said such gaming parlors have never been a problem there.
However, the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling disagreed, according to news accounts, saying strip-mall casinos were pushing more people toward gambling addiction. The group's helpline director, Brian Kongsvik, said his council had received a 38 percent increase in calls from 122 to 168 over the last two years from residents suffering from gambling addiction at strip-mall casinos.
He called such places "very accessible and available" in areas where there are no normal destination-type gaming facilities. He said it is a great concern because it puts a gambling environment in front of people who would not normally play such games.
Some people who objected to the passage of the ban, say it is nothing but "100 percent politics."
Michael Strawbridge, owner of Byer Sweepstakes in Cape Coral, said he believes legislators have received heavy contributions from Indian casinos and dog tracks in the state.
"That's what's happening," said Michelle Grant, who has spent the last eight months working at the Vegas Games parlor.
"They said that if the governor signed the bill, the ban would take place immediately," she said. "I don't know what I will do."
Dan Doty, the owner of the Lehigh game parlor and others, told The Citizen that he was working with others to bring about some type of an injunction to be filed to exempt parlors like his which gives points, representing cash, to winners on bank cards. But there have been no reports of ant injunctions being filed. If some type of injunction was filed, it would likely have little, if any impact on what the legislature and governor have done.
McAlister, who noted that lots of people kept a running total of more or less on their cards and for those that have amounts due them, wonders if they will be able to use the cards in retail stores. The bans on the stores are being enforced by the Lee County Sheriff's Office.