Business owners complain of impacts from sweepstakes cafe

Business owners complain of impacts from sweepstakes cafe »Play Video

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — Business owners in a south Bakersfield shopping center blame a sweepstakes cafe for crime and disturbances in their area. One shop owner said she wants more help from the city, and she's contacted the city councilman from the area.
"They went in this summer, and we've just seen a rise in all sorts of negative activities," the shop owner told Eyewitness News on Thursday. "Mary" didn't want to give her real name, because she's worried about retaliation.
"You can sit there for 10 to 20 minutes in the evening, and you're seeing prostitution, you're seeing pimping, you're seeing dealing," Mary said. She said she worries about the safety of her customers and her staff.
On Thursday, a man wearing a shirt marked "security" approached an Eyewitness News team standing in the parking lot. We asked to talk to a manager. "She just doesn't want to talk to you," the man said. He identified himself as officer Tennison.
The internet cafe is called I-Sweeps, and it's in a shopping center at Hughes and White Lane.
Another business owner told Eyewitness News he's also seen trouble since the internet cafe went in. That man also didn't want to be identified, but he listed disturbances, yelling and the smell of marijuana as problems. "It doesn't help business," he said, worried that the problems will scare away his customers.
Internet cafes have been under the scrutiny of the Kern County District Attorney's office since last year. Deputy D.A. Greg Pulskamp is convinced that what they offer is illegal gambling. "It's illegal, that's our opinion," Pulskamp told Eyewitness News in February.
Last summer his office filed civil action against nine facilities and the local courts issued a preliminary injunction ordering them to stop running the sweepstakes games. But other sweepstakes cafes remain open, and critics say more have started up since then.
The sweepstakes cafes typically offer products like pre-paid phone cards, Internet access or services like making copies or sending faxes. Spokesmen at various cafes have told Eyewitness News the Internet games are simply a marketing tool, like a sweepstakes offered by a fast food restaurant.
The worker at the second business at Hughes Lane begs to differ. "Winning money is not a sweepstakes," he said. "It's gambling." that man said he'd been inside I-Sweeps, and it looks like a "computer casino."
Another man in the parking lot on Thursday said he'd been inside the day before. "I won $30," he said -- declining to give his name. The customer said the atmosphere was "OK and respectful," adding it did look like a casino. All he saw were Internet games, but there could have been other services he didn't see.
"Mary" says her nearby business has seen plenty of problems which she blames on the I-Sweeps customers. "We'll have people having group sex in (our store's) bathroom," she said. "It's to the point where we've had to padlock our bathrooms. One gentleman caught it on fire doing his drugs in there."
Eyewitness News attempted to ask I-Sweeps about those concerns. "No customers do that that I know of," the security guard said. "Because they'll be asked to leave the store." Tennison also said the problem behavior could come from customers of a nearby motel or the "homeless problem."
"Mary" took her concerns to the Bakersfield City Council on Wednesday, and since the store is in the 7th Ward she got a response from Councilman Russell Johnson.
"I have to compliment him, I spoke with him in person and in detail about this issue," she said. "Within 24 hours I had a detective call from the vice detail."
Johnson was in Los Angeles on Thursday, but in a call to Eyewitness News he said when he heard about the situation he contacted Bakersfield Police and it's "on their radar."
Deputy D.A. Greg Pulskamp told Eyewitness News his office is working on their case against the nine sweepstakes cafes. Five of the businesses have filed legal challenges with the appeals court. Pulskamp said by the end of the week his office will file a motion to have those five cases joined together.
Meanwhile, "Mary" hopes the city will do something about the sweepstakes cafes and the problems she thinks are associated with them. She also hopes property-owners will be aware of the concerns.
"I don't know that they really know what they're getting themselves into when they allow these (tenants) to come in and sign leases," she said. "Mary" said the problems she's seen are bad for the property-owner and the businesses around the sweepstakes cafe. "The type of junk that's going on in this parking lot is not something nice people want to be around," she said.