I-TEAM: Internet cafes making comeback in Jacksonville

Nearly 45 new cafes have opened this year across town

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Internet cafes are making a comeback in Jacksonville.

They are popping up in many areas of town, despite a highly-touted crackdown on what the state is calling illegal gambling.

News4Jax investigators have been following the spread of the popular, but often criticized, businesses in the city since they first started opening back in the early 2000s. They've been raided and shut down, but always seem to come back.

The I-TEAM was told nearly 45 new internet cafes have opened this year in Jacksonville. An example of how popular they are can be seen on Blanding Boulevard, where there's two cafes right next to each other.

One reason for their popularity are so-called fish games, a recently popular tabletop game found at internet cafes. The idea is people put in money, start shooting fish on a screen, and, if they get the right ones, they can win some big bucks at times. But how are they legal and why are so many of them opening up?

"I really love it," customer Michael Barwech said. "I win all the time."

Barwech is one reason why fish games are becoming more prevalent at internet cafes opening across Jacksonville. They draw crowds and Barwech said they pay off.

"I just made $300 last night," Barwech told News4Jax on Friday.

They apparently make big money for the operators, as well. Though none of the owners or managers would go on camera, there appears to be more of them now than there were before the first crackdowns began in 2013. There have been several raids since then, but none lately.

City officials noticed the increase, as well. Some Jacksonville City Council members are asking the same questions.

City attorney Jason Gabriel told the I-TEAM he is well aware of what’s going on, but said there is a lack of resources to fight them. 

Their legality is also still in question, even though Gabriel said the business are presumed to be illegal.

"It’s a crapshoot on how the state will ultimately view it," said attorney Mitch Stone, who represents some of the cafes. "So we are still kind of in this gray area, if what internet cafes are offering is legal or illegal based upon how they are running the business."

It’s a matter that the state said is a local issue. And there has been finger pointing in both directions.  

In the past, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office has said it's aware of the issue, but it's an ongoing investigation, and so it can’t comment.

For now, the city continues to issue them business permits. But who is regulating them is still being questioned.

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