ANTIOCH -- After a four-year run, Internet cafes that offer sweepstakes games meant to feel like casino-style gambling are on the way out of here.
Cot on the Web, Antioch's lone remaining cafe in operation, will close later this month. The city denied its business license renewal, citing public safety concerns, owner Patricia Simmons said last week.
"I just don't get it," Simmons said. "I don't think (the city is) thinking this through."
The cyber cafe on Buchanan Road provides a place for people from all walks of life, including several patrons who identified themselves during a recent visit as homeless, recovering drug addicts or without a computer, to fraternize, have fun and stay out of trouble, Simmons said. Many unfairly perceive Cot on the Web's clientele as "so called riffraff" because of their appearance and mannerisms, such as loitering and smoking outside the storefront, she said.
Sweepstakes games, which have grown in popularity both nationally and locally, allow patrons to insert an electronic card or pin code into a computer that gives them a certain number of chances to win, depending on how much Internet or phone card time is purchased. Supporters say the promotions are no different from those used by fast-food chains and other companies.
Simmons said everything seemed to be going fine with Antioch after it adopted an ordinance in February 2012 adding rules allowing the two existing cafes to operate and forbidding new ones from opening.
Cot on the Web and The Internet Room had to keep windows uncovered; add security guards, an indoor waiting area and surveillance cameras; and close at midnight on weekends and 11 p.m. on weeknights.
The Internet Room closed in September, city officials said. Simmons' other Antioch cafe she opened in 2010, T's Internet Cafe, remained closed when the city restrictions kicked in.
Things seemed to be going well at Cot on the Web until Simmons tried to renew her permit, she said.
A March 18 letter from Community Development Director Tina Wehrmeister said Simmons had not submitted her application within 60 days of the April 23 expiration date. Simmons, however, insisted she turned in an application back in October.
Wehrmeister's letter also says the business poses a threat to public health, safety and community welfare. It said police had 31 calls for service to Cot on the Web from Feb. 16, 2012, through the end of the calendar year and 12 calls in 2013.
Of the latter 12 calls, half were related to alleged drug dealing, a fight and a stolen vehicle.
"For those reasons, even if your renewal application had been timely, I would not have anticipated approving the renewal of the license," Wehrmeister wrote.
Simmons said she doesn't understand why the city didn't lean on some of the ordinance requirements, such as requiring more security guards, or looking at surveillance tapes if the business "was causing such a commotion."
Further, she points out that Antioch is in the midst of a spike in crime, and closing Cot on the Web may make it worse.
"If they are all the bad people, what do they think is going to happen to these people when we're closed?" Simmons said.
The faces of patrons in front of Cot on the Web's computer screens revealed the somber realization that the cafe is in its final days. Numbered pieces of purple paper are tacked up near the cashier's counter as a countdown.
"This is a big family that they're tearing apart. It's like home," said patron Chanel Richardson, fighting back tears. "For a lot of us, this gives us something positive to do and a place to go. Keeps some from going back on the streets."
State gaming officials consider the sweepstakes illegal, but have left enforcement decisions to local governments. The state Bureau of Gambling Control issued a law enforcement advisory in December and offered local governments assistance in shutting them down.
Several East Bay municipalities have moved to shut them down in the past year, including Pittsburg, Oakley and Brentwood.
In Hayward, city leaders extended a moratorium banning new and existing sweepstakes cafes in the city. It shut down three cafes earlier this year after city staff members found that they violated zoning laws. Two reopened after a judge issued a temporary restraining order in a lawsuit filed by a cafe owner.
Last month, the sweepstakes games were prohibited in unincorporated Alameda County.
Staff writers Rebecca Parr and Ashly McGlone contributed to this story. Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.