After a lengthy discussion that centered on the merits of allowing another gambling establishment in a new section of town, the Kalispell City Council narrowly approved a conditional use permit for Eureka Town Pump, Inc. to open a gas station and convenience store with an attached casino on West Reserve Drive.
The council voted 5-4 on Monday night to give final approval to operate a casino at the 4.14-acre site, which was also annexed into city limits. Councilors Phil Guiffrida, Chad Graham, Sandy Carlson, Tim Kluesner and Mayor Mark Johnson voted in favor while councilors Wayne Saverud, Rod Kuntz, Jim Atkinson and Kari Gabriel were opposed.
Over two hours of discussion was devoted to the proposal, which sought to develop a convenience store in the former church building and create a 7,900-square-foot casino attachment, along with fueling stations and parking. The council approved annexation of the site, meaning it will be hooked up to Kalispell’s sewer and water services. Developers said the business would work with engineers to stabilize the nearby embankment, which has a history of sloughing into the Stillwater River.
The casino will be the first in the bustling north end of town, which has grown into a busy commercial district with surrounding residences and Glacier High School.
While several letters of opposition were submitted to the city, over a dozen members of the public turned out to City Hall to voice their disapproval of the casino, citing concerns over increased gambling and its societal harm.
“I believe in personal responsibility, but I also believe that if there is less temptation fewer people will succumb to it,” said Jenny La Sorte, noting the over 35 casinos already operating in Kalispell.
Mayre Flowers, executive director of Citizens for a Better Flathead, echoed others’ concerns that the development of a casino would harm the character and value of nearby neighborhoods and businesses.
“If this is granted, it would change the character of development in this corridor,” Flowers said.
The council approved the conditional use permit based on a list of nine requirements for the business, including a rule that states it cannot display signage directly advertising the casino or any elements of gambling, beyond the business’s name, “Lucky Lil’s.”
Councilors in support of the proposal said the city had regulations in place that allowed the development, rebuffing previous statements made in public that Kalispell prohibited casinos north of U.S. Highway 2, which is untrue.
“An unwritten rule is not a rule. We have policy and that policy is black and white,” Guiffrida said, adding, “If we want to have a philosophical discussion about this at a different time, I’m open to that. But I’m not going to show ill will to an applicant that is following the rules.”
Kluesner said the city has a responsibility to follow the policies that are in place instead of “changing the goal posts when the kick is already in the air.”
Others disagreed, including Atkinson and Saverud, who said it was proper for the council to make decisions based on the community’s values.
“We as a community have core values,” said Atkinson, adding, “We have to take a stand for something.”
City Attorney Charlie Harball urged councilors to be careful with how they based their decision, warning them that it could be deemed discriminatory if their decision was simply based on the merits of this gambling establishment while other casinos were approved in the past. Instead, Harball recommended if the council wanted to review prohibiting casinos it should consider establishing an overlay or regulated area that would designate where gambling could occur, similar to Whitefish.
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