A convenience store in Fort Worth’s Northside called La Familia Discount Mart used to be the meeting place of Comunidad 27, a local crime prevention group, where discussions led to the creation of a community mural on the wall of the store.
After the owner, Pat Franko, died, ownership changed at the bright yellow store at 2622 Azle Ave. The most recent addition to the store is a cluster of game machines – more commonly known as eight-liners.
Hearing about the machines raised alarms for Selena Cruz, who helped paint the mural.
“I was like, ‘Oh no, it’s another one.’ Another store like that. It’s just going to attract the wrong people,” Cruz said.
Some Fort Worth residents, city officials and business leaders are opposed to game rooms – stores that feature six or more game machines – though LaFamilia does not meet the legal threshold for that designation.
The rooms can be found in gas stations and convenience stores across the city. Those opposed to the rooms, like Cruz, say they attract crime. Earlier in March, a game room patron shot an employee in northwest Fort Worth.
Game rooms must be 1,500 feet away from the nearest residential area, and a certain distance away from the next game room. Game room owners also need a permit from the city to operate, and machines need licenses, decals and registration, according to the city’s website.
Fort Worth police enforce game room rules by conducting inspections, said officer Daniel Segura, with the department’s public relations staff. Establishments that have up to five games are not considered game rooms and are not bound by those regulations.
Fort Worth District 2 council member Carlos Flores, who represents the Northside, is against the game rooms. He wrote a letter urging Tarrant County Commissioners to enforce game room regulations in 2019. Fort Worth relies on Tarrant County to set regulations for the game rooms.
“Please provide the citizens of Fort Worth and Tarrant County the much-needed and requested relief from the deleterious effects of game rooms,” he wrote in the letter.
Fort Worth’s legal battle over game rooms
Fort Worth has been in a legal battle stretching eight years over the legality of gaming rooms.
In most cases, it is illegal to gamble in Texas. In 1995, the Texas Legislature amended the definition of gambling to allow game machines to make non-cash payouts, but it’s more complex than it sounds. This is how the Texas State Law Library describes it: “Texas law forbids gambling devices, such as eight-liners, from awarding cash prizes. However, there is a part of the law — commonly referred to as the “fuzzy animal” exception —that allows operators to award non-cash prizes that are worth less than $5.”
“Because of that, there has just been a proliferation of these eight-liner machines,” Chris Mosley, a senior assistant attorney at the City of Fort Worth, said. “And it really has caused problems in cities.”
In 2014, Fort Worth tried to create rules that restricted game rooms to places zoned industrial and at least 1,000 feet away from a school, place of worship or a residential area. Game room owners Stephannie Rylie of Texas C&D Amusements Inc. and Brian and Lisa Scott of River Bottom Pub sued the city shortly after the ordinances took effect in 2015. They argued the eight-liner machines were legal under the “fuzzy animal” exception.
Last March, the Fort Worth Court of Appeals ruled that eight-liner machines were not exempt by the “fuzzy animal” exception because they are considered “lotteries,” or games of chance, and does not pre-empt the City of Fort Worth from regulating them. The game room owners in the case are seeking review from the Texas Supreme Court on the ruling. It’s a waiting game to see whether the Texas Supreme Court will accept the appeal, Mosley said.
The conversation continues in Northside
To push back against the eight-liners, Flores recommends reaching out to the owner of the game room to express concerns and to report any suspicious activity to the police.
“Legally speaking, there’s no way I can compel them to not do it,” Flores said. “I can only ask.”
Some members of the community are already taking action. Arnoldo Hurtado, who runs the Northside Community Fort Worth Facebook page and was involved in Comunidad 27 and the mural, said he has been talking with the owner about the gaming machines in the store.
“We hope that (the owner) will consider being a good business-man and partner by listening to the community needs, wants, and vision, because this potential plan already has huge buy-in from the community,” Hurtado wrote in an email.
The Fort Worth Report could not reach the owner of La Familia Discount Mart.
Anette Landeros, president of the Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said she opposes game rooms and is aware of the frustration some Northside neighbors have. Game rooms may also dissuade future businesses from locating to a particular area, she said.
“I think the major concern is, if we continue to allow these businesses or these types of businesses to infiltrate a specific area, are we basically … making it less attractive for other businesses that the community may actually want to come into the area?” Landeros said.
The Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is currently in charge of revitalization efforts for the Historic Northside. Landeros said the La Familia Discount Mart is outside of the area the chamber is working in. But game rooms open discussions with the community about what kind of businesses they want to see.
“The neighbors that we’re engaging with, they may live in the district, or they may live slightly outside of the district,” Landeros said. “But overall, the question is, what kind of community are you interested in having, what kind of businesses do you wish were around? What kind of atmosphere would you like for your family? And then working toward that.”
Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @sbodine120.
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