Oildale businesses worry 'sweepstakes cafe' will set up shop

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) Some Oildale shop owners are worried about what will open up in a now-closed medical marijuana dispensary. One merchant has heard it will house a so-called "sweepstakes cafe," and he thinks that would bring crime and problems to the area.

"These guys come in here, and it'll just ruin it," TJ Esposito told Eyewitness News on Tuesday. He owns Happy Hydro just north of the big white building at 1704 N. Chester Ave. That site has been vacant since Measure G passed, the county ordinance restricting locations for medical marijuana dispensaries.

"I caught the property manager out in the parking lot and was talking to him about the new other business coming in," Esposito said. "He told me it's going to be a new Internet cafe."

Eyewitness News is trying to reach the property owner to verify who the new tenant will be.

Esposito said he wants anything except an Internet caf.

"I've done my research," he said. Esposito said a friend has a business in another area with an Internet caf next door, and it's been nothing but trouble. He worries about drug use by caf customers and other problems.

"You have loitering," Esposito said. "It's a 24-hour business. Basically it's an unregulated video gaming casino."

Kern County Deputy District Attorney Greg Pulskamp has been investigating the sweepstakes cafes.

"It's illegal, that's our opinion," he told Eyewitness News last year.

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 cafes have stayed open, and more have started up.

Esposito said the Oildale business area has worked hard to make improvements, like the landscaping on North Chester.

"You've got Covenant Coffee, you've got Wattenbarger's, you've got good solid companies all around me," he stresses.

In that area, Eyewitness News heard from one nearby shop owner who said he has no problems with a possible Internet caf. Another business spokesman said they want to be sure the area has a positive environment. And one business owner said he's heard of problems at other Internet cafes, adding getting one on North Chester would "definitely be bad news."

At Chester and China Grade Loop a sweepstakes caf is open for business. In that shopping center, one nearby business said caf customers have caused problems for them, but others said they've seen no effects.

Esposito is still worried.

"They haven't even opened yet, I just want to really be proactive," he said. Esposito is looking for help, and said he contacted his county supervisor. He got a call back from Mike Maggard's office and they asked him questions about the situation, he said.

Maggard's staff told Eyewitness News they are in touch with sheriff officials who are investigating Internet cafes, adding in this situation nothing has opened yet.

Esposito said he also contacted Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood on Facebook.

"He posted on there," Esposito said. "He's frustrated, he doesn't like them either, but there's nothing they can do about it because they're waiting on a court ruling."

Deputy D.A. Greg Pulskamp has told Eyewitness News his office is working on their case against the nine sweepstakes cafes, and five of them have filed legal challenges with the appeals court.

Esposito is convinced the operations amount to illegal gambling.

"They disguise it by selling cell phone minutes, snacks, stuff like that," he argues. Some Internet cafes have told Eyewitness News the games are just a marketing tool.

Esposito wants to protect his business, he sells hydroponic gardening supplies.

"We cater to old people, young people," he said.

The business owner says he'll move to another location if a sweepstakes caf starts up next door.

"We do produce a lot of revenue, you know, and I'll take the business somewhere else away from an Internet caf for sure," he said.