At its last meeting of 2001, the Missoula City Council approved a proposal to remodel a West Broadway convenience store into a bar and casino.
The rubber stamp followed two public hearings, one before the planning board and the other before the council. There was some talk of big-picture issues like neighborhood character and community responsibility, and plenty of wrangling over shrubbery and bicycle parking.
Any time someone wants to start a new bar and casino (gaming and liquor licenses are issued together under state law) it requires new zoning for the property, a process that involves going through the city planning board and council. It is a system that is susceptible to inconsistency, and both casino owners and casino critics are unhappy with it. Missoula officials say they will consider changing the zoning process for casinos as part of this year’s major zoning review, Growth Management Phase Two.
City planners are still working on their recommended proposals. Those proposals will likely undergo many revisions as they get bounced among the city committees and go through a public comment process. What the proposal will almost certainly do is make approval of new bar/casinos automatic if its matches a certain set of requirements, mostly having to do with landscaping and accessibility. The location requirements are fairly loose, just requiring a new establishment to be in a commercial zone. That condition is sure to be the most debated part of the proposal when it comes before the council, as some will try to make the requirements stricter. The language of current zoning law sparked some of the more philosophical discussion at the planning board meeting in early December.
For a site to be rezoned to serve liquor and offer gambling, the owner needs a “CLB”(Commercial Liquor/Beer) overlay. City law says CLB overlays are to be approved only if “the zoning is justified by public convenience and necessity and the welfare of the people residing in the vicinity of the property for which the zoning designation is requested will not be adversely or seriously affected.”
Planning Board member John Spangler quoted the ordinance at the meeting and then said the proposal for 2120 West Broadway did not meet the requirements. Westside resident Betsy Hands spoke at the meeting to voice a similar concern.
“I am troubled by these continual overlaps for establishing a bar and gambling establishment for public convenience and necessity,” Hands told the board. “I think that it is an eyesore and basically is taking advantage of low-income people that don’t need to have a convenient place to drink and gamble their money.”
When council members have mentioned that it seems like a stretch to approve new casinos and bars based on their “public convenience and necessity” and their lack of adverse effect on the public welfare, city planners shrug their shoulders, says Councilman Jim McGrath.
“There’s no way they can say this is a benefit to the health and safety to the community,” McGrath says.
When it comes to public convenience, Missoula suffers no shortage of casinos. According to the state Gambling Control Division, as of Dec. 31, 2001 there were 130 licensed gambling operators in Missoula County, most of which are within Missoula city limits.
When the CLB overlay for the West Broadway bar and casino came before the council, Councilwoman Lois Herbig said she was supporting the overlay “because I think it’s a good location for a casino, versus some of the other ones that we voted for where they’re close to residences.”
McGrath disagreed, saying that the only criteria for whether casinos get approved now seems to be if there already is a casino in the area.
“The casino that’s next to it, by the way, is the Rocky Mountain Grill,” McGrath said at the meeting. “Which is one where they came in and made a big deal about it being a family restaurant with a few gaming machines and it turned out what it probably always was intended to be, which is an entire casino. I don’t think it’s good for the community, I don’t think it’s good for the neighborhood, so I won’t vote for it.”
The proposed site at 2120 West Broadway is tiny, McGrath says, leading him to picture “wall-to-wall machines. It’s not much of anything but a quarter extraction machine.”
Controlling where new casinos go is currently the only way officials can deal with the negative effects of the gambling establishments, McGrath says.
“We kind of have a sense in the community that they are undesirable but we were forced by state law to accommodate them,” he says.
McGrath contrasts the state’s acceptance of casinos to other mandates like the operation of group homes or halfway houses. Some may not like the facilities nearby, but they serve the greater good of society, he says.
“Casinos aren’t like that. Basically they really seriously harm a small percentage of the population. They’re like crack houses or something,” McGrath says. “They’re really bad for people who are addicted to gambling and that’s where most of the money comes from, and the rest of us don’t care very much. I don’t think there are many people who casually go to a casino every once in a while who would miss it.”
Kevin Head, owner of The Rhino and a former president of the Missoula County Tavern Association, sees things differently. He would like to see casino zoning laws changed to put fewer restrictions on where the operations can be.
“Basically what you’re doing is destroying the neighborhood tavern,” Head says. “You’re putting everything down into one district.” CLB overlays for bar/casinos do serve a neighborhood’s necessity and welfare, Head says, because having a neighborhood tavern cuts down on drunk driving.
Head acknowledges that there are problem gamblers but says the tavern industry has always contributed time and money to helping solve that problem. Furthermore, Head points out that the city of Missoula’s general fund is heavily dependent on tax money from gambling, and that casino critics in local government are “biting the hand that feeds.”
Ultimately, though, Head says it is a matter of personal responsibility and choice.
“To me it’s a pamper issue,” Head says. “What it means is, ‘I know what’s best for you and I’m going to put a pair of Pampers on you whether you like it or not.’”