Buildings that once were a beehive of activity now sit closed and abandoned. Equipment formerly filling those premises has been removed, with no signs of life in the parking lots.
No, this isn’t the aftermath of former textile and furniture plants falling victim to the recession, but the scene at various Internet sweepstakes businesses in Mount Airy and Surry County which have gone the way of the dodo.
A series of raids by city and county officers on establishments where illegal gambling was suspected — combined with the voluntary shutdowns of others in the wake of the busts — have led to the virtual extinction of those enterprises.
“To my knowledge, there are no other businesses that are currently open for business in Mount Airy,” city Police Chief Dale Watson said of the Internet gaming industry.
The same is pretty much true with Surry County as a whole, according to Sheriff Graham Atkinson.
“I think there may still be one that I know of right off the top of my head,” Atkinson said Monday of the number of Internet sweepstakes parlors still existing in the county. And the sheriff indicated that this establishment is under investigation, declining to identify its location.
Such businesses had been a problem locally, according to officials, who say they prey on the poor by fueling addictions that have led to customers losing their entire paychecks in some cases. The parlors tended to lure in participants with eye-catching signage or lights and names such as “Lucky Draw.”
State legislation passed in recent years supposedly intended to prohibit those operations became undermined by loopholes that allowed businesses to remain open by using alternate software which did not simulate gambling.
So during the winter, Chief Watson announced that local law enforcement would became part of a statewide initiative to crack down on the Internet sweepstakes businesses through traditional gambling laws. This included sending officers to a conference in March which was hosted by district attorneys.
Both the police chief and Sheriff Atkinson say the effort in Surry was reliant on cooperation among local enforcement agencies.
The sheriff said discussions were held among all police chiefs in the various jurisdictions of the county so a unified approach would result, and avoid different messages being sent by the respective agencies.
An initial raid by Surry County and Mount Airy authorities on April 2 led to more than 100 pieces of computer equipment being seized at The Barn, a gaming establishment on West Pine Street just outside the city limits.
Multiple counts of operating or possession of a slot machine later were filed against David Lee Fulk, the owner of that business.
Then on May 8, Mount Airy and Surry County officers executed search warrants at three other locations where illegal gambling allegedly was occurring.
Included were the Top Catz III Internet gaming parlor on North Andy Griffith Parkway in Mount Airy, The Biz Center on Carter Street here and Tucker & Dezern Grocery in the Pilot Mountain area.
This led to at least two or three other business owners in the city, who might have thought they were operating within the law, shutting down on their own before officers paid a visit.
“We are pleased with the end results, we certainly are,” Watson said, which includes the smoothness of the process involved with removing sweepstakes businesses from the local landscape.
“It was actually quicker than what I originally thought,” he said of how it unfolded.
Along with the success of the raids, Watson is glad that voluntary compliance was achieved at other locations where operators decided to close voluntarily.
“What this does show is that local law enforcement agencies, when there’s a need, we work together to serve the county, and combine resources,” the chief said.
“It worked perfectly,” Atkinson said of the joint effort, which he added was necessary from a manpower perspective due to the major tasks involved with removing, transporting and storing gaming equipment that was seized.
The sheriff said the same spirit of cooperation can be effective with other crime problems, and in the meantime officers will be on the lookout for any other gambling establishments that surface.
“And if we get any reports,” the sheriff said, “we’ll be right there to check on them.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.