SEBASTIAN — In the past five months, Joe Salinas has seen two game room raids, players driving to an eight-liner arcade down the street and strangers dawdling around his neighborhood.
But he hadn’t yet seen a judge set a new hearing date to decide the fate of four game rooms which have remained open on temporary court orders since last summer.
Now, the long wait is over.
State District Judge Adolfo Cordova, who took the bench early this month, has set a Feb. 21 hearing to consider the cases of the Silver Star Game Room, Silver Express Game Room, La Victoria Game Room and the Silver Outpost.
During the hearing, Cordova is expected to consider the game rooms’ requests to remain open.
Meanwhile, he might side with the county, which is requesting the court uphold a tough new ordinance that led the area’s game rooms to close last year.
Last August, Judge Migdalia Lopez, who retired late last month, granted the four Sebastian game rooms their requests for temporary restraining orders.
Since then, those cases mostly languished in federal court until last month, when they were returned to the 197th State District Court.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Salinas, who lives a block away from one of the game rooms, said Wednesday. “I’m praying for the best. I’m hoping (the judge) will side with the community.”
Salinas said he is concerned game rooms will draw organized crime to this tiny farming community lying along Willacy County’s southern edge, just across from the Cameron County line.
“The bottom line — we need to close these places down permanently,” said Salinas, a radio station technical director who has pushed to drive game rooms out of the county.
Like Salinas, Sheriff Larry Spence is counting on Cordova to deny the four game rooms’ request to remain open.
“I’m glad it’s finally coming to a head and we can voice our opinion,” Spence said. “They’ve been open for a while now and it’s caused some concern.”
Game room invasion
About three years ago, about eight game rooms opened up along Sebastian’s narrow streets, luring out-of-town players into town.
“It’s their location,” Salinas said. “They’re right in our neighborhoods.”
Since then, Spence has fielded residents’ complaints.
“Some are close to residences,” Spence said. “There are trash issues — trash blowing through neighborhoods, people cutting through people’s yards trying to get to these places.”
For years, Spence pushed for a local ordinance regulating eight-liner arcades in the county’s vast unincorporated areas.
Big crack down
Then last February, county commissioners approved a tough ordinance ordering game rooms to operate at least 300 feet from homes, schools and churches — and 2,500 feet from other eight-liner arcades.
The ordinance was drafted to hit game room owners in the pocket book, setting fines of $10,000 a day for violations.
Then on Aug. 13, 2018, Lopez granted the Silver Star Game Room, Silver Express Game Room, La Victoria Game Room and the Silver Outpost their requests for temporary restraining orders allowing them to operate until they take their cases to court.
Under the ordinance, game rooms had been required to re-apply for permits to operate.
After the sheriff’s department reviewed their applications, the county granted permits to three game rooms.
So, many game room owners argued the county unfairly rejected their applications, denying them their due process rights.
Less than a month later, Ricardo Morado, the attorney representing Willacy County, requested the cases be moved from state court to federal court because their due process arguments constitute federal claims.
So the cases were set for a Dec. 27, 2018, hearing.
But early last month, the county agreed to move the cases back to state District Court.
Ed Cyganiewicz, an attorney who has represented game room owners, said part of the court’s delay might have stemmed from changes on the judge’s bench.
“With a new judge coming in, there was just going to be some delay with the change in administration,” Cyganiewicz said Wednesday. “It takes time for a new judge to set up the staff and docket.”
Cyganiewicz, who might be representing the four game rooms again, declined comment on their cases.
“This has been going on too long,” Salinas said of the long wait for a hearing.
Game room raids
Since last August, federal agents have twice raided the El Toro game room, one of the county’s largest eight-liner arcades in nearby Lyford.
After an October raid, the El Toro reopened.
Since it was raided again last week, the big game room has remained shut down.
However, the Silver Outpost, which local authorities raided in November, was back in business in few days later.
Like Salinas, many residents have grown flustered.
“Why do they get raided — because they’re doing something illegal,” Salinas said. “They close down — and then they open up again.”
Meanwhile, the four game rooms continue to draw players into the community’s neighborhoods.
“The traffic has increased, especially at night,” Salinas said.
“The majority are from out-of-town. So they drive all the way out here to win $5 prizes — you know they’re winning more than that,” he said with a chuckle.
Like Salinas, Spence is holding out hope that Cordova will uphold the new ordinance which led this community’s game rooms to close.
“Hopefully, the judge will side with us and our ordinance and rule they’ve been in violation and are subject to regulations of the ordinance,” Spence said.