After opposition from neighbors, the Missoula City Council voted Monday night to table a proposal to open a tavern and casino on Russell Street, saying the issue of alcohol and gambling in residential areas deserved a deeper look.
The owner of the liquor license, Nick Alonzo, opposed the move, saying his costly state license is set to expire. The issue is likely to prompt a deeper look by the city at laws regulating the placement of bars and casinos.
Ben Brewer, with the city’s development services, said the proposed tavern and casino would take the place of a laundromat at 1610 Russell Street. The building is also occupied by Ole’s County Store.
Brewer said the proposal would transform the 1,081 square-foot laundry into a tavern with a full liquor license. It would include 20 gaming machines.
But area residents spoke in opposition to the proposal, saying the recent opening of another nearby casino has led to an increase in petty crime and domestic fights.
“Adding another casino is just going to make it worse,” one man said. “It cuts into our safety, our lifestyle and our happiness of being there.”
Another said security hasn’t been addressed in the proposal.
“What kind of a generation are we trying to create?” he said. “What kind of future are we providing?”
Vince Gavin of Gavin-Hanks Architects spoke in defense of Alonzo, saying it wouldn’t be fair to assume the businesses owner wasn’t concerned about community health and safety.
He said the proposal is allowed under the city’s current zoning laws. Two people were folding laundry in the facility at 9 p.m. on Monday.
“I don’t feel our project can really address these concerns other than what’s written in the zoning codes as a permissible zoning use,” said Gavin. “The safety and security of the customers that enter the store and casino are paramount to the success of the business.”
Ward 1 council member Jason Weiner moved to return the issue to committee for further discussion after City Attorney Jim Nugent urged the council not to take statements regarding crime as fact without factual documentation.
“I’m not alone in wanting to know if there’s any substantiation to this,” said Weiner. “I hear the concern that these (casinos) isn’t a benefit to the area where they go into.”
Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley agreed, saying it required a broader discussion.
“We need a discussion about these casinos, the design of the casinos, and the way they interact with the neighborhood,” she said.
Before the issue was returned to committee, Alonzo urged the council to take action, saying there wasn’t time to wait.
Alonzo said he’s been working on the project for six months and the liquor license was set to expire.
“We’re at the end of the rope,” he said. “We have to place this license or the state of Montana takes our license. We still owe the money on it. This project has been going on for six months.”
In other action, the council voted to approve a mini-storage unit at 1870 Reserve Street. The project meets zoning requirements for the area.