Internet gambling cafe fuels concern in Fishtown – and beyond

    A building in Fishtown that’s advertising “cash prizes” in its windows is causing a worried buzz among neighbors. Signs adversite the site on Frankford Avenue as the future home of the Jackpot Internet Cafe.

    Such businesses, called “Internet sweepstakes cafes,” take advantage of a gap in Pennsylvania gaming laws. They offer customers a chance to take part in online sweepstakes in return for the purchase of Internet time on the computer.

    A Pennsylvania lawmaker has introdued a bill to prohibit such cafes, which do not come under the purview of the Pennsylvania Gaming Board.

    Neighbors, some of whom are already happy about the arrival of the licensed Sugarhouse Casino near their homes, are worried.

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    Ina Dogani, 23, says she usually can hear what’s happening in her neighbor’s houses: “The walls are like paper thin, really.” So she worries that if the Jackpot Internet Cafe opens on one side of her, her sleep will be disturbed.

    “One of my roomates told me—I believe it was last Thursday or Friday, they were like, ‘So we’re living next to the Jackpot Internet Cafe?'” she said Thursday. “And I said like, what? … So I just went outside and I was shocked. It’s unexpected. I thought this was a residential neighborhood, and we wouldn’t be living next to an online casino.”

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    Right now the windows and door of the first-floor business are plastered with pictures of dollar bills, the words “cash prizes,” and images of slot machines.  Owner Mike Murawski did not return calls seeking comment.

    Alyson Horne is the public relations coordinator for State Rep. Randy Vulakovich. Horne says the lawmaker from western Pennsylvania has introduced a bill to close a loophole in the state’s gaming law.

    “These things are happening under the radar but they’re becoming more frequent,” she said. “[Vulakovich] just wants to make sure there’s proper oversight of these things and that we’re not putting people at risk.”

    How do the cafes’ work? Horne explains:

    “When a customer would come in to make a purchase, the person would be given a free entry for a sweepstakes game and once points are earned through playing the game the participant would then be able to redeem the points for cash. Many of these games resemble Las Vegas-style games such as video Keno and poker.”

    A ‘buyer beware’ proposition

    Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board spokesman Doug Harbach says Internet gaming cafes are not licensed like traditional casinos.

    “They’re not affiliated at all with the licensing that we do at the Gaming Control Board,” he said. “Nor as far as we understand, are they really licensed by any entity with the state. The Internet cafes are a bit buyer beware because unlike casinos, these are not regulated, so they’re not following specific rules that do protect the patrons.”

    Back at her house on Frankford Avenue, Dogani says she’s nervous about the kind of crowd the Jackpot could draw.

    “Are they going to be drinking?,” she said. “Is it going to be safe for me to walk back at night? And is our house going to be safe? Is someone going to be angry once they gamble away all their money?”

    The cafe is just part of the neighborhood’s influx of new businesses, says long-time Fishtown resident John Parker, who lives a few doors down Frankford. He’s less worried:

    “Everybody’s entitled to try out the things available to them. Why stand in the way of progress?”

    Parker doubts he’ll go to the Jackpot Internet Cafe himself. He says he hasn’t even been to nearby Sugarhouse; he’s not into gambling.

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