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TURAH - Few 2005 state legislators drive by the Turah Pines on Highway 210 these days, so they miss manager Jackie Fike's message to them.

It's in the form of a question on a readerboard that you can't quite see from Interstate 90 as you whiz by between Missoula and Clinton.

"Where," it wonders, "are all the non-smoking drinkers/gamblers!!"

The Montana Clean Indoor Air Act enacted by the 2005 Legislature went into full effect almost 18 months ago.

"They were running all the commercials on TV saying your bar is going to be full of new patrons," Fike said Friday. "Nonsmokers are going to be supporting the bars and spending money in the bars now that they're nonsmoking.

"That never happened."

Not that she or her mother, Peggy Bjornberg, the bar's owner, ever believed it would.

Turah Pines was the only bar in Missoula County that openly defied the Oct. 1, 2009, smoking ban, racking up some $2,300 worth of fines in the first five months as complaints rolled in to the Missoula City-County Health Department.

The county attorney's office filed charges against Fike in March 2010. Fike and her Missoula attorney, Milton Datsopoulous, entered a plea of not guilty. Fike was released on her own recognizance under the conditions that she quit breaking the law and not leave Missoula County.

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Fike, who believes the state should allow for both smoking and nonsmoking bars so patrons can choose, said she called the bartender on the way home after that April hearing and told her to put away the ashtrays. Turah Pines has been a no-smoking bar since.

Now business is so bad, Fike said she's had to lay off all but two bartenders to work 14 shifts a week. She's gone from putting in two shifts a week behind the bar herself to sometimes working seven, often back to back. Meanwhile she has to keep up with the bookwork and other managerial duties.

The irony is that while Fike has never worked so hard, business is as slow as it's ever been, and she doesn't know how much longer she can keep the doors open.

"I have pulled out the last money in the savings account to pay the bills. I'm down to nothing," she said. "I can't work seven days a week double shifts. I can't do it."

Bjornberg and her late husband Cyclone bought the bar in 1973 and Jackie remembers swamping floors in the morning before school at age 7. Bjornberg winters in Arizona these days, and she's long planned to have a retirement nest egg by selling the business and the liquor license that goes with it.

That prospect became more provocative when the city of Missoula annexed the Canyon River Golf Resort east of East Missoula a few years ago. For liquor license purposes, Fike said, a bar is considered part of the city if it's within five air miles of the city limits. A city license is considerably more valuable than a county license.

"Before the economy took a turn for the worse, I believe one of the last licenses that sold in Missoula sold for $980,000," Fike said.

She's heard the most recent sale was for much less, in the neighborhood of $650,000.

"But I've seen them advertised for $850,000, so they might be coming back up a little now," Fike said.

There's a stipulation that a bar owner can't transfer the license within five years of annexation.

Missoula's annexation of Canyon River in October 2006 left the Turah Pines out of the five-mile zone by scant feet "to the center of the pavement between here and that trailer house," Fike said, pointing out the west window of the bar.

But an adjustment to the city boundaries a couple of years later left the bar in the zone - and substantially increased the value of its license.

"That's why it's so crucial I stay open for another 2 1/2 years," Fike said. "This is what we have worked for for the last 20 years. I can't give up now. I can't. But when your sales are $30 to $50 a shift, how do you stay open?"

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The Clean Indoor Air Act is working, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

"If you go into just about any bar or casino you're not going to see anyone smoking," said department spokesman Jon Ebelt. "The vast majority of businesses are in compliance, and to their credit they are protecting the health of their workers and customers."

Ebelt said the state health department receives about 10 complaints a month.

"By comparison, we received approximately 400 complaints in the first six months when the law went into effect in 2005. Since the full implementation in October 2009, DPHHS has received 132 valid complaints concerning 73 businesses," he said.

Erica Rollins is responsible for receiving, investigating and, in some cases, initiating smoking violation complaints in Missoula County. Rollins is the senior community health specialist at the Missoula City-County Health Department.

"It's been pretty slow with smoking complaints," she said.

The last two came in December and earlier this month, the latter having to do with a service retail business with an out-of-compliance smoking patio in the city.

Still, her job hasn't been uneventful. Rollins visited one rural bar last year to investigate a complaint and a few nights later was awakened at 2 a.m. by "a vulgar and harassing call at my home" from a patron of the bar.

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"They knew my name, they looked me up and called my house," Rollins said, adding that she could identify the voice of the bar owner in the background.

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Still, she hasn't noticed a marked difference in violations between urban or rural establishments.

"I have heard in smaller towns it's been harder (to report)," Rollins said. "Everyone knows each other, and they don‘t want to cause ripples in the community."

Fike, who has a status hearing in justice court on April 13, said she knows of several bars where smoking still takes place. She feels she's losing business to them now that she's been court-ordered not to permit it.

That was the same complaint lodged against Turah Pines when it publicly defied the ban last year.

"I did hear from other rural bars that they were losing business because people were going to Turah Pines," said Rollins. "So if everyone is not smoking right now, I can imagine they're on a level playing field. They're at the bar they're choosing or not choosing to go to."

If it's a level field, that level has dropped precipitously in Turah, said Jim Meixner. He has operated The Other Place just down the street from Turah Pines for the past seven years.

"We haven't gotten one nonsmoking customer since the smoking ban went in place," said Meixner.

Business has "decreased incredibly - probably cut in half," Meixner said.

It was almost laughable at times during the long, cold winter, he added.

"The only people in the whole place are five smokers, including the bartender, and all six are standing outside smoking. The bar is literally empty. Who are they protecting?"

"My biggest problem," Fike said, "is I would love to fight this smoking ban wholeheartedly. But I'm working so much I don't have the time."

"We're both back to waiting for those new nonsmoking customers," Meixner said with a sigh. "I even leave the lights on and I still haven't seen them."

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman @missoulian.com.

 

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