It’s early on a workday, and there’s a single player seated at one of the 18 machines in the two-room M&J’s sweepstakes café, located in a small strip mall on Highlands Road in Franklin.
Louise Dills, who works at the nearby manufacturing plant Whitley Products, has casually dressed for the time she’ll spend here. The Macon County native was wearing a sweat suit, T-shirt and tennis shoes, her typical sweepstakes attire. She was playing her favorite sweepstakes game: “Candy Money.”
M&J’s is one of more than 1,000 sweepstakes cafes that have sprung up statewide, despite a ban by the General Assembly on video gambling. Dozens are here in Western North Carolina.
Sweepstakes cafes such as this one sell “time” to customers to gamble online or by cell phone. Customers, in return for whatever amount of money they care to risk, log on to their machine of choice and play for the allotted time they purchased.
Sweepstakes café owners and managers argue that letting customers “find” cash and prizes via computers is simply buying and selling Internet or phone time — not real gambling, in other words.
... The General Assembly first banned video gambling in 2007. It didn’t take long before so-called “sweepstakes” cropped up as an alternative. Lawmakers viewed the sweepstakes as a reincarnation of video gambling under a different name, designed to circumvent the previous ban. So the General Assembly went back to the drawing board and passed another ban in 2010 aimed at putting sweepstakes cafes out of business as well — the third attempt in an ongoing game of cat and mouse between the state and video gambling industry.
But the situation didn’t turn out as black and white as lawmakers had anticipated. Lawsuits challenging the ban have allowed the games to continue, leaving local law enforcement officers confused about whether sweepstakes machines operating in their counties are illegal or not.