FLORENCE – The commercial real estate developer hoping to open a new casino in Florence said Monday that opposition to the plan comes from a small minority of local residents who have blown the issue “way out of proportion.”
“You have a very small minority set of people that make up their mind they’re going to stop this. They’re very much from the religious right, for the most part, or their good friends own bars in the community, or a combination of both,” said Dan Fillinger, owner of Mountain Magic Pubs LLC.
In December, Fillinger applied for a new beer and wine license through the Montana Department of Revenue so he can open a Mountain Magic Casino in a space owned by Town Pump Inc. near the intersection of U.S. Highway 93 and the Eastside Highway in Florence.
Fillinger has done property and tax work for Town Pump in the past. He also has owned bars or casinos around the state, including the Missoula Ale House, at various times.
“I just noticed there wasn’t a casino in Florence. I thought, well that’d be a good opportunity,” Fillinger said. “Town Pump did warn me and said, ‘We tried it many years ago and it was really difficult and we decided not to do it.’ They said, ‘We don’t want to try it again. You’re more than welcome to.’ ”
In 2000, a state Department of Revenue Liquor Control Division hearings examiner denied a beer and wine license request by Lucky Lil’s casino for the same spot after more than 800 area residents testified they didn’t want another casino in the town.
Bonnie and Steve Arno, who helped organize the grassroots citizen group that fought the casino expansion in 2000, are again heading up the opposition group. They say demand for alcohol and gambling in the area is already met by the three bar/casinos in town and the multiple Town Pump casinos that are located within seven miles of Florence.
Another casino would further perpetuate the drunken driving problems in the area and be a negative impact on high school students who often gather at the Town Pump during lunch, Steve Arno said last week.
The Department of Revenue has received enough letters of protest about the issue to warrant a public hearing in Florence. The hearing most likely will be set for late spring. The deadline to submit protest letters is Feb. 11.
Fillinger plans to bring his own attorneys and a contingent of supporters to the license hearing. He thinks he can get around 100 people to testify in favor of his plan.
Fillinger argues that casinos rarely overserve gamblers, saying that his establishments have never been cited for overservice or for serving a minor.
Plus, he said, the tax revenue and jobs offered by the casino would be a boost for Ravalli County.
“They blow it so far out of proportion, let’s look at the violence on television, let’s go after things that are really going to make a difference in society rather than a small business simply trying to hire eight to 10 employees in a place that really needs employment,” Fillinger said.
Fillinger also believes the area population has grown enough since 2000 to warrant another casino.
Florence resident Philip Maechling, who opposes the new casino, disagreees. The population in Florence has dipped since the 2000 census, dropping to 765 from 901, he said.
U.S. Census numbers show the population in Ravalli County overall was up by almost 12 percent, from 36,070 to 40,212, Maechling said.
“All of that growth is on the other side of the Bitterroot River, not in the community of Florence,” he said. “It’s kind of about community design. Do we need more signs? Do we need more gambling machines? I just don’t know, I don’t think so.”
The Arnos believe they’ll be able to gather a well-balanced group of protesters, just as they did in 2000.
The Arnos said they are neither members of the religious right nor close friends with current Florence bar owners.
In fact, Steve Arno said, during the last protest the group had a hard time getting bar owners involved at all.
“I don’t know how it is now, but Town Pump is so big and powerful, they weren’t going to say anything or get involved in any way,” he said.
Reporter Jenna Cederberg can be reached at 523-5241 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.