Game rooms will face strict regulations after the City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to curb the operation of the businesses amid neighborhood worries about crime and property values.
Two game room owners spoke against the ordinance for the first time in the public process, saying it hurts legitimate business owners and does little to regulate those illegally operating electronic gaming machines.
“I think this ordinance was written to eliminate game rooms, not regulate them,” said Lisa Scott, a game room operator in east Fort Worth. She said she didn’t speak at the last meeting — when the council delayed voting on a similar ordinance — because of “all the hate from the other speakers.”
Councilman Danny Scarth, who proposed the regulation, started the effort to make the often shrouded businesses operating in nondescript buildings more transparent and easier to monitor. He made the motion to approve.
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“It is really easy to tell the difference between someone who is operating a legitimate game room and someone who is not. The legitimate game rooms are bright, well-lit, with signs and open windows,” Scarth said. “… It is not a dark room. It’s not behind a barbershop or a smoke shop. You don’t have to know someone with a secret password to get in.
“We have been compelled to try to create an ordinance that is pretty tight but still will allow those who come in and say, ‘Look, in the light of day, we want to operate a legitimate business,’ ” he said.
Scarth said amendments might be possible in the future. Nearly 20 residents showed up in support of the ordinance, calling it a vast improvement over the first draft presented in September.
“We see the activities that take place and we call them in when we have to, when we feel the need to, and now we feel like we have something to allow our code officers and police officers to do something with, where we didn’t have that before,” said Mike Phipps, who lives in east Fort Worth.
A tougher ordinance
The first draft would have allowed game rooms to operate in areas zoned for planned development and required them to register with the city as an indoor amusement facility. It also would have prohibited game rooms within 300 feet of a residential area, a church, a school or a hospital, and it had rules about signs and blocked windows.
The stricter ordinance permits game rooms only in light-industrial, medium-industrial and heavy-industrial zoning districts. They are not allowed within 1,000 feet of a residential area, a church, a school, a hospital or another game room.
The entrance must be marked with the words “game room” in 6-inch or larger black block letters and must be legible from 25 feet away. At least one unobstructed window is required, with a view of all the machines. Other guidelines address parking requirements and the submission of site plans to the city.
All existing game rooms must comply with the new ordinance within 90 days of the effective date, which will be about a week after the council meeting, after the ordinance is posted.
A game room is defined as a public place with one or more of the amusement machines present.
Game room owner Quin Chandler raised concerns about the ordinance, such as a limit on the number of machines — saying it has no correlation with illegal activity — and the need for a site plan — an unexpected cost for legitimate operators.
These regulations will just “drive [illegal operators] further underground,” he said.
He said limiting operating hours is an example of a more effective regulation that could be put in place.
Enforcing the regulations
Though gambling is illegal in Texas, gaming machines are legal if they are used “only for bona fide amusement purposes” and award only noncash prizes.
Chuck E. Cheese’s and other amusement arcades are examples of stores that reward players with noncash prizes and are legal in Texas.
But regulation of gaming machines can be tricky to enforce.
A Fort Worth Police Department report presented to the council in March says that the “law is unclear as to when a gaming machine’s payouts are illegal” and that “the costs and logistics of investigating and prosecuting cases” make the law hard to enforce.
Police documented 131 game rooms in the city, and those came to the department’s attention through resident complaints, officer discovery and reported crimes.
Brandon Bennett, director of code compliance, has estimated in previous meetings that he will need two senior enforcement officers to regulate the game rooms. The first-year cost, including equipment, is $209,410, a total not yet included in the proposed fiscal 2015 budget.
The second year would cost $158,830, he said.
The code officers would investigate complaints and also seek out game rooms for inspection, Bennett said.
This report includes material from the Star -Telegram archives.