New businesses in the Sandusky area and across Ohio seem to be re-inventing the wheel to sidestep skilled gaming laws, a state official says.
Local owners say their only game plan is to bring people back to the parlors and boost a struggling economy after a state gambling bill crippled their business.
But an assistant attorney general says they're just using new tactics to disguise what is still considered illegal.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Michael Rzymek said he's seen an increase in calls to his office over the past month from law enforcement officials expressing concern over "skilled" gaming.
"There was a real quiet time after the law went into effect (outlawing electronic games of skill last October), but now people are trying different variations to get around the gambling law and make money," he said. "They're trying gas cards and they're trying sweepstakes games."
House Bill 177 made it illegal for Ohioans to win prizes worth more than $10 when playing games of skill or chance, except for the Ohio Lottery. It was designed to close a loophole in Ohio's gambling ban that allowed electronic "games of skill" to continue operating.
Since its passage, owners of gaming parlors say they've tried to bring customers back by offering other incentives.
Connie Facemire and Marina McManus, who co-own Liquid Gold Skill Games in the Sandusky Plaza on Cleveland Road, hosted a grand opening for their business Friday and say they plan to offer fuel cards and non-cash prizes, such as airline tickets, television surround-sound systems and home furnishings.
Facemire, who also owns Skill Fever in Lorain, said her business shut down last October after the passage of the new law. She reopened in December with non-cash prizes.
Business there has been slow ever since, she said.
As a gambler who often travels to casinos in bordering states, Facemire said the number of Ohio license plates she sees while on the road is proof Ohio has a want and a need for gambling.
"I thought this would be a good business that would keep the economy in our towns," she said of her decision to open a parlor in Sandusky. "This is a good place for older people who can't travel and who like to sit down and play with people they know."
Facemire said there is there is nothing illegal about her games -- which include Tic Tac Fruit, Nudgemasters, Nudge 'ems and Eightliners -- because they pay out points, rather than cash, in small increments. Players have the potential to win up to $2,000 in credits for a fuel card, but they can only win a maximum of $10 in credits with each game. Fuel cards are legal, she said, so long as they are used for fuel alone.
But Rzymek disagrees, saying gas cards still violate the law.
Violations of the gaming law are considered a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000, according to the Ohio Revised Code.
Another local business, which opened April 19 in Perkins Township, offers another kind of incentive that officials say is questionable.
Mega Nites, 120 W. Perkins Ave., is an Internet cafe offering Sweepstakes games wherein customers purchase pre-paid long distance telephone cards and Internet time in exchange for a chance to win a variety of cash prizes, trips and automobiles.
"In our opinion, this is the only one that is truly a legal sweepstakes," Mega Nites Co-owner Dan Csach said. "Long-distance telephone service is tough to sell in today's market, so in order to promote sales, we offer the sweepstakes. The games they play here are simulated slot machines, which is just an entertaining way to reveal what your sweepstakes prize is."
He compares the sweepstakes to special promotions at fast-food restaurants, where customers are paying for something they already want with the added bonus of a potential prize.
But Rzymek has a different opinion of the games. He says many consumers will purchase a telephone card they don't want or need with the sole intent of gambling.
"If you go to McDonald's, you don't take the food out and throw it in the street -- you're actually consuming it," he said. "If people go in to buy a phone card but never use the minutes, then you're paying to gamble."
He said he is working with state officials and local law enforcement agencies to determine whether the newer gaming operations fit the definition of slot machine gambling. So far, he said he has not dealt with specific cases in Sandusky, but he has investigated similar operations in Akron and Mansfield.
Local officials say they're planning to deal with the growing gray areas involved in gambling on a case-by-case basis.
"If we learn of anything that might be illegal, we'll investigate it," Sandusky Police Det. John Orzech said. "We've been in touch with the attorney general's office on the legislation, because the law's kind of questionable depending on what type of machines and gifts they're giving ... and our interpretation is that gas cards are not proper."
Norwalk Law Director Stuart O'Hara said he hasn't had any issues with gambling in the city since a Spin-to-Win parlor closed after battling with city councilors over zoning law violations.
But Keith Holt, who runs a Jackpot Spin and Win parlor in Sandusky and five others in Ohio, said he remains hopeful that a change in the gambling law is on the horizon. Forced to lay off 30 of his employees after the passage of House Bill 177, he said he's exploring a new avenue with sweepstakes games.
The former federal marshal said he's now spending more time than he ever imagined proving his innocence over the games he offers.
"With the new areas (of gaming), all it takes is one person to complain, and there's an investigation," he said. "I still believe it's realistic to get Level 3 gambling here -- right now, the money leaves Ohio at 65 mph out of state."