Updated: Could this Fishtown business be an internet casino cafe?

It is still uncertain what is opening – or perhaps what was to have opened – at the Frankford Avenue storefront where recently installed window decals proclaim it the Jackpot Internet Cafe.

In addition to the name, decals depicting dollar bills and coins and promising “cash prizes” appeared a few days ago at the newly renovated 1802 Frankford Avenue site.

Neighborhood residents, civic groups and news sources were abuzz. It seemed an internet casino was opening. Some residents saw computers inside. But the business has yet to open.

This morning, some of the decals – the ones promising cash – were gone, said New Kensington Community Development Corporation commercial corridors manager Henry Pyatt. The rumor is that the property owner ended the lease with the tenant, Pyatt said, but that is unconfirmed as he could not reach the property owner today.

If the Jackpot Internet Cafe is, or was, an online gambling cafe, it would be part of a statewide trend. “These are sprouting up all over the Commonwealth,” said Mary Isaacson, spokeswoman for State Rep. Mike O’Brien, who is on the House Gaming Oversight Committee.

The cafes, often called sweepstakes cafes, charge customers for cards that provide access to the online games. Losses are taken from the card balance and wins are added, she said. Customers cash out at the businesses.

The places are illegal, Isaacson said, because the only gambling allowed in Pennsylvania is the state regulated kind, which requires licensing. Cafe operators try to operate in a loophole, saying the are only allowing internet access, and there is no gambling facility on site. It is up to district attorneys to prosecute, she said.

Legislation that would close the loophole by specifically outlawing internet gambling cafes has passed the house and is in Senate committee, she said.

Locally, L&I spokeswoman Maura Kennedy said she did not know if any local law prohibited an internet gambling cafe. There were permits pulled for construction work at the site, but there was no application for a business license, she said. It would be up to the business operator, not the property owner, to apply, she said.

Kennedy said L&I received a complaint about the business, but it was not open on a site visit. Until something opens, “there is no one to cite” so the legality question is “moot for us,” she said.

Pyatt said he talked to the property owner yesterday, and the owner said he did not know what kind of business the tenant was opening.

NKCDC does not want an internet casino, he said, but even if this is a totally different business, he wants changes to the windows.

“The big thing for us is to have eyes on the street,” he said. “We want every business owner to have an activated first floor.”

So the frosted windows no one can see in “are kind of a big deal for us,” Pyatt said. “It goes against the Frankford Avenue Plan.”

Fishtown Neighbors Association President Neil Brecher said no one from the business has made a presentation to FNA. The signs popped up within the last few days, he said, but the door was locked when he stopped by, and no one answered his knock.

“When you see that particular kind of business advertised on the windows, it implies gambling, but it doesn’t mean it is,” he said.

FNA  Zoning Chairman Matt Karp said the C2 commercial zoning on the parcel would allow for an internet cafe, and anyone can play games, such as poker, on-line. But cash prizes would seem to push this into a different category. “All gambling is controlled by the state, and I’m pretty sure gambling is not allowed without a state license,” he said.

But the bottom line, Karp said, is that right now, there’s nothing going on inside. “Until something is actually happening there, all it is is the sign,” he said. “It’s nothing until it’s something.”

Karp said the building has been under construction for the last year, and work is just finishing up. “It looks like someone’s moving in,” he said. People have told him they’ve glimpsed computers inside.

“It could be just an internet cafe with bad advertising…or, they could be geniuses,” Karp said. “They are certainly getting people talking.”

People are talking on Fishtown.US, the website where news of the cafe first sprung up. Philebrity calls it “SugarHouse North”.

There’s a bit of deja vu here, Karp said. “It’s just like Cash for Gold – nobody knows what’s going on.”

Karp refers to another remodeled building fronting on Delaware Avenue, across from SugarHouse Casino, where a Cash-for-Gold sign popped up. The owner of the building said his tenant was going to open a jewelry store. A jewelry store permit with a precious metals license was granted. Such licenses limit the amount of floor space that can be devoted to buying precious metals, and L&I said the business needed to run before it knew if it was in violation. L&I did make the business take down the Cash-for-Gold signs, because the signs were not legal. The business has never opened, and the building is for sale. In response to the incident, Fifth District Councilman Darrell Clarke introduced new legislation that defines cash-for-gold businesses as pawn shops, and makes them illegal anywhere pawn shops are prohibited – this would include the Central Delaware Waterfront.

Check out The Casino Next Door by Bloomberg Businessweek

Reach the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com

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