Gambling on a Change? 

Proposed casino starts a war of morals in the Bitterroot

A group of Florence citizens doesn’t want a new casino to open in their town. But to stop it, they must oppose its application for a liquor license, because there are no laws in Montana that prohibit issuing a gambling license if an establishment already has a liquor license.

A new Lucky Lil’s casino is already under construction at the Town Pump service station smack in the middle of the growing unincorporated town of Florence, 17 miles south of Missoula. But a group calling itself Citizens for a Better Florence is determined to stop it from opening, for fear it will become a temptation to the town’s younger citizens.

“We’re very concerned about the impacts it could have on our teenagers,” says Steve Arno, a Florence resident involved in the opposition effort. “Town Pump dominates a lot of small towns. It must be the premier gambling company in Montana.”

In fighting the liquor license application, the group drew lessons and encouragement from another group that successfully blocked the rural Threemile Stores liquor license application last spring. In that case also, citizens led by local moral activist Dallas Erickson, flooded the two-day liquor application hearing with testimony that the application would lead to multiple problems and major changes in the rural character of the store’s neighborhood, which is within a half-mile of the Lone Rock Elementary School.

In October, Erickson’s group was not successful in blocking the addition of a casino to The Works convenience store and gas station in Stevensville on the same moral grounds. The Stevensville City Council refused to pass an ordinance prohibiting gambling within 600 feet of churches or schools.

Erickson’s group then asked the Ravalli County commissioners to pass a county-wide ordinance restricting gambling, but again met defeat. Attorney Jim Mickelson advised the county commissioners that, without a county plan or growth policy in place, they had no authority or framework on which to enact such an ordinance.

In Florence, however, the battle is just underway. Citizens for a Better Florence have taken advice and help from Erickson’s group and have hired attorney John Beal, who successfully helped stop the Threemile Stores liquor license application, and are preparing to oppose the Lucky Lil’s application at an upcoming public hearing set for Jan. 13. The group has established a bank account and is actively soliciting donations to cover the legal expenses.

“We take great heart in their success and got as much help as possible from that group, but citizens really don’t have much to say in the process,” Arno says. He called Town Pump a “formidable foe.”

Laura Fricke, another casino opponent, agreed. “It’s unfair. They are spending a lot of money on their propaganda and money really speaks, we know that. We have barely enough to hire a legal advisor.”

Arno is worried about highway access to and from the business, which sits at the busiest intersection of U.S. Highway 93 in Florence.

Much testimony at a town meeting held in early December concerned the Florence-Carlton School, which is within a half-mile of Town Pump. About 150 people attended the meeting. Many who spoke were concerned that another casino in a town which already has three gambling establishments would be a corrupting influence on high school students who stop at the gas station and who would be exposed to on-premises gambling with aggressive advertising of alcohol and smoking.

“The other bars in town are more social places where people get together to visit and gambling is not a main feature,” Fricke says. “That’s not the case in the Lucky Lil’s casinos. It’s a totally different focus than what we desire for Florence.”

Another concern is that the proposed casino is not a small, local, family-owned business. Town Pump Corporation is based in Butte and has convenience stores, gas stations and casinos across Montana. Citizens are concerned about high-budget marketing tactics, low food prices and discount gas prices, which attract customers—particularly teenagers.

But Town Pump is fighting back. All local area newspapers have carried full-page ads since the public meeting in Florence. “Are you unwilling to let others dictate your morals and beliefs? Do you resent others dictating how and when you can legally make or spend your dollars?” asks the ad, which also warns, “Apathy is automatic surrender to the vocal minority.” It then asks readers to call a toll-free number to show support for the new business. The same ad is posted in the Town Pump gas station in Florence, which remains extremely busy.

At an informational meeting in December, Bob Scheet, Town Pump’s statewide casino marketing director, said his company was willing to work with the community to answer their concerns. He added it might be possible to separate the casino from the store area with a door to limit teenagers view of the gambling area, noting also that both drinking and gambling are legal in Montana and the addition of a casino to the Florence gas station was nothing out of the ordinary.

Scheet did not return calls from the Independent inquiring about the success of the “morals” ads. However, employees at the Florence store says business has been steady, and many people have verbally offered their support and continued patronage.

The Jan. 13 liquor license application hearing will run from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Lichenstone Realty office. Arno, Fricke and the others will be ready to testify.

“This is our legal right,” Fricke says. “We have the opportunity to say we don’t want it. Our area is well-served with such businesses already.”

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