LAURINBURG — The characterization of internet sweepstakes as dens of iniquity by a local religious group during Tuesday’s meeting of the Laurinburg City Council has left owners and patrons of those businesses somewhat bemused.
“I don’t think there’s too many big fools who sit there and lose $300, $400,” said Greg McMillan, proprietor of the Clipper Zone barber shop in Wagram. “It’s not that type of machine.”
McMillan, whose business is situated next door to Big Pay Sweepstakes on the town’s main drag, says he plays sweepstakes about once a week, though he used to put down $20 or $30 a day.
“Those people aren’t telling people to come in and put their earned income in there and get nothing out of it,” he said. “That machine can’t talk to you, so it can’t tell you to stop putting money in. That’s up to the individual.”
Rachel King, an employee at a second Big Pay location across the street from McMillan’s barber shop, says that, regardless of the business’ legal status, those who assume that internet cafes are frequented by criminals and drug addicts have probably never been in one.
“Assuming that they’re all druggies and their lives are in shambles — these are people who are obviously well-dressed, driving nice vehicles,” said King. “Not all of them are the scum of the earth and I think it’s unfair to attack the whole.”
Kelly Outlaw, who works at the Carolina Cyber Center location on McColl Road owned by her mother Grace Outlaw, concurred. Outlaw’s father, Robert Outlaw, owns the South Main Street Carolina Cyber Center.
“Nobody’s ever come in looking like they were on the verge of shooting themselves or like they just couldn’t take it anymore, they’ve just spent their last dollar, and now they have no gas and they can’t leave.”
Another Big Pay client, a Hoke County resident who declined to give her name, said that she plays no more than once a month as a social activity.
“I’m on a fixed income, I get a check once a month and when I have some spare change here and there I’ll come and play,” she said. “And I’m not sitting in the dark.”
The resurgence of internet sweepstakes in Scotland County came as the result of confusion created by the dismissal of illegal gambling charges against Carolina Cyber Center in December. Though Superior Court Judge Regina Joe did not explain her decision, the internet gambling industry has said that “pre-reveal” sweepstakes software, that informs customers whether or not they have won prior to displaying a game or entertaining scene, is not specifically prohibited in anti-gambling legislation as written.
Another Wagram business owner, Tony Robertson of T&A Seafood Mart, has not welcomed the appearance of internet sweepstakes next door and across the street from his business.
“Any time a store closes, you know it’s going to be a casino,” Robertson said. “But what can we do about it? Nothing.”
With other relatively recent additions such as Family Dollar and Dollar General, Robertson fears that the influx of sweepstakes is a step backwards for the small community and its residents.
“My wife was telling me that a coworker of hers, her sister came out to borrow money from her and she’d just got paid but she’d been to the casino and gave it away and she wanted to borrow money so she could try to get it back. You know you’re never going to win.”
Proponents of internet sweepstakes feel that it is no different from the forms of gambling legal in North Carolina such as the lottery and church bingo.
“I worked retail gas for a long time and people would come in and buy (lottery tickets) by the books and they would invest way more money than what they do in here,” said King.
“They’re never going to take away lottery, so how can they call one right and one wrong?”
Outlaw, who informs new customers that the pre-reveal software used at Carolina Cyber Center is “perfectly legal,” said that several businesses in Laurinburg use software that is clearly in violation of state statutes.
Michael Sandrock, whose brother James Sandrock is the owner of Wagram’s Big Pay Sweepstakes, said that to his knowledge, Blue Diamond is the only pre-reveal system on the market, and that the company will not license the software to businesses within three miles of each other.
Representatives of the Greensboro company that markets Blue Diamond, VIP Computer Solutions, were unavailable for comment.
Thus far, the city has continued to issue privilege licenses to all sweepstakes cafes along with a written caveat that the city does not endorse or concede to their legality, deferring the question of whether or not they remain open to law enforcement.
Industry supporters say that to blame Scotland County’s social ills on the prevalence of internet gambling rather than the other way around, Outlaw said, smacks of naiveté.
“They have a whole lot more issues than these internet cafes,” Outlaw said. “I don’t think they can sit there and put everything that’s wrong with Laurinburg on the casinos.”
Sandrock argued that those who call sweepstakes an “eyesore” haven’t considered the realistic alternatives.
“People say that buildings are being filled with all these bad places, but the buildings would be falling down,” he said. “People are receiving rent, the electric company is getting electric paid.”
But though their opinions of internet gambling may differ vastly, those who make their living from sweepstakes as well as those who count down the days until their closure seem to agree on one point.
“How can they sell you the business license for $10,000 and then six months later cut your hand off?” King said. “It’s a little hypocritical to take all the money. … Right’s right and wrong’s wrong, regardless of what the business is, and they’re just as guilty as anybody else.”
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-276-2311, ext. 17. Follow her on Twitter @emkaylbg.