FLORENCE – As far as Bonnie and Steve Arno can tell, not much about Florence’s casino scene has changed since 1999, the first time Town Pump Inc. wanted to put a new bar and casino in its convenience store at the intersection of U.S. Highway 93 and the Eastside Highway.
“At that time it was the same as today; there were three bar/casinos already. And they’re in a half-mile strip of Florence. There was another bar that was temporarily out of business and up for sale. It hadn’t sold,” Steve Arno said. “That’s exactly the same as the situation today.”
Back then, the Arnos were part of a successful citizen group protest of the new bar/casino that ended when a state Department of Revenue Liquor Control Division hearings examiner denied Lucky Lil’s Casino a beer and wine license after determining existing licensed establishments in Florence already met the demand.
During a 2000 hearing on the Lucky Lil’s license, almost 600 residents testified in opposition to the casino. Almost 300 more signed an affidavit of protest that led the hearings administrator to deny the license, Bonnie Arno said.
Still, she wasn’t surprised when she read a legal ad in the Missoulian last December announcing a different company had filed an application with the Department of Revenue to secure a new beer and wine license for 5501 U.S. Highway 93 N., the address of the Florence Town Pump.
“I think the surprise was it took 12 years,” Bonnie Arno said.
This time, Mountain Magic Pubs LLC, owned by Dan and Linda Fillinger, applied on Dec. 11, 2012, to the Department of Revenue for a beer and wine license necessary to establish a casino at the Town Pump.
Neither Town Pump Inc. nor Magic Mountain Pubs LLC representatives responded to requests for interviews about the license application.
The Arnos, who have lived in Florence since 1975, began another campaign to protest the casino in December. Their concerns haven’t changed much since 2000.
“The reason we’re so animated about this is we not only don’t need it, but it’s a terrible location for public safety and will kind of pollute the environment of the town for young people,” Steve said, noting that the proposed location is within a half-mile of the high school and that students often head to the Town Pump during their lunch break. “The other bars are further away, south of the intersection and they’re not flashy at all. They’re just country bars.”
On top of that, Bonnie said, drunken driving continues to be a huge problem and the proposed casino sits near a busy – and potentially dangerous – intersection.
The Arnos and another Florence resident, Laura Fricke, are asking that residents write letters of protest to state officials.
Residents must send those letters to the Department of Revenue at P.O. Box 1712, Helena, MT 59624-1712, by Feb. 11. The letters must include the protest issue and the reason for the protest, said Shawna Helfert, administrator for the Liquor Control Division.
The Department of Revenue has already received enough protest letters to warrant a Florence hearing on the license. Area residents who submitted a letter will be able to testify at the hearing, Helfert said.
Hearings are typically set within 90 days of the protest deadline and each protester will be sent a notice of hearing when it’s set, Helfert said.
Montana Code Annotated sets out a long list of reasons for denial, including if the license issuance may harm residents or other retail establishments with licenses near the application premise or if the issuance presents public health and safety risks, Helfert said.
The Arnos figured that in 2000 Town Pump spent around $10,000 on an advertisement campaign championing the casino.
Their citizen group raised a small amount of money to help their cause in 1999. Missoula attorney Jon Beal offered legal advice pro bono. All helped get the license denied, the Arnos said.
In the end, according to a July 2000 Ravalli Republic story, the hearings examiner ruled that based on the residents’ testimony, he found “compelling” evidence existing establishments met the demand.
The Arnos have begun talking to people in the community and believe the sentiment remains the same in 2013.
They aren’t planning to raise money this time around, Steve Arno said, but will rely instead on another large protest contingent to keep the casino from opening.
“Once we find out the list of protesters, who all of them were, we can start contacting people and preparing for the hearing,” he said.
Bonnie Arno hopes there’s enough “energy” left in Florence to mount another successful campaign against the new casino.
“We feel more prepared,” she said. “On the other hand, they’ll be more prepared, too. They’ll have a better lawyer and they’ll have individuals from the community testifying why (the casino is needed).”
Steve reiterated how important community involvement will be.
“This isn’t even David vs. Goliath,” he said. “It’s a flea on the elephant issue.”
Reporter Jenna Cederberg can be reached at 523-5241 or at email@example.com.