Lolo residents rally to oppose new casino 

More than 1,000 people have lined up in Lolo to protest a casino that has been proposed at the town’s shopping center, but despite the swift and well-organized opposition the protesters may already be at a disadvantage.

The casino, Gold’s II, proposed by Montana Casinos, Inc., would open between Lolo Drug and Harvest Foods in the Lolo Shopping Center. The three shareholders are Karen and Kenneth Palagi, and Gregory Smith. They propose transferring an existing liquor license from The Tavern, in Missoula, to the new location in Lolo. Under Montana law, a casino must have a liquor license before it can open.

The number of protest letters received by the state licensing agency has prompted the state to schedule a two-day public hearing. But the deck may already be stacked against the citizens of Lolo because Smith, a Great Falls attorney, has launched a full-scale legal counterattack against the protesters, who have said they cannot afford to hire their own attorney.

One Lolo woman who has been in the forefront of the opposition was required to give a deposition, and other opponents have been sent a list of questions to answer in advance of the trial-like testimony scheduled for next month in Lolo.

“It’s another messy one, I think,” says Howard Heffelfinger, the state Department of Revenue hearings officer who will preside over the two-day public hearing on Oct. 23 and 24. “I’m told by the protesters they have 1,000 people lined up ready to protest it.”

Though Heffelfinger says the Lolo protest is similar to a huge casino protest in Florence launched last year, and which resulted in a denial of the planned casino in that town, the Lolo case differs in that one of the partners is an attorney. “For the first time in any protest I’ve had, we have full-bore [legal] discovery,” says Heffelfinger.

The opposing citizens would prefer that the two-day hearing be a casual, community affair, Heffelfinger says, but under Montana law such protest hearings must include the same rules of evidence and follow the same administrative procedures as civil court trials. “Suddenly, they find themselves in this trial-like forum,” he says. Sharon DiBritto, who has led the casino opposition, estimates that fighting the casino will cost between $15,000 to $18,000 in legal fees. The Florence community spent $18,000 on its successful battle to keep Town Pump from opening a casino near the Florence-Carlton school. “We’re going to try to do it without a lawyer, but the playing field is very uneven,” says DiBritto.

As in Florence, Lolo citizens say there are already enough casinos in their town: There are four within the town itself, and two more within a five-mile radius. Nor do they like the location. Says DiBritto, “What we object to is the location. It’s where [schools] pick up and drop off kids. The whole crux of our case is going to be the no-need clause.”

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