Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) While two members of the Missoula City Council sought to block a gaming permit to a group of local entrepreneurs, all other council members gave the project their stamp of approval, saying a bar and restaurant will be a welcome addition to the growing neighborhood.

On a 9-2 vote, the council on Monday agreed to grant the conditional use permit to John Sargent and James Jones to operate a casino and tavern alongside their fine-dining bar and restaurant planned off Mullan Road.

The cost of a liquor license in Missoula stands just shy of $1 million – an up-front cost that can be prohibitive for an upstart business. The project's owners have said the casino is needed to help offset the cost of the license.

Most members of the City Council agreed and welcomed the project, even if it included a casino.

“If an entrepreneurial business wants to be a full-beverage restaurant, they're paying for a gaming license whether they want that or not,” said council member Mike Nugent. “At $1 million, the reality is they have to include some level of gaming to even pay the cost against that license.”

The building, planned for construction within a larger commercial subdivision, will include around 13,000 square feet with a kitchen and tasting room in the basement.

The main floor will include the restaurant and tavern, with the casino set aside in a separate area. It will also include a smaller bar on the second floor and a small shop on the main floor.

But it was the inclusion of the casino that prompted council members Kristen Jordan and Daniel Carlino to vote against the permit. Carlino suggested it wasn't “ethical” to pay off a business loan with gaming revenue.

Jordan and Carlino also suggested that gambling led to addiction and poverty.

“Living in close proximity to casinos, the data shows you're almost twice as likely to become a problem gambler,” said Carlino. “Using a casino to subsidize those high licensing costs isn't very ethical.”

The larger project was approved by council several years ago and will include three buildings. An office building has already been constructed on one of the lots and the restaurant is set to begin construction. The use of the third building hasn't been determined.

The property is currently designed for high-intensity commercial and residential uses and was annexed into the city in 2020. The planned restaurant, tavern and casino is allowed and permitted by city zoning.

“We're losing a lot of potential benefit to the neighborhood by just focusing on the casino portion of this project,” said council member Heidi West. “The design itself intentionally segregates and downplays that there's even a casino component. Having local businesses go in where there is a lot of development happening is something we want to see.”

Jordan disagreed.

“When we have the opportunity to really pick the neighborhoods we want and where we want things to go, it really lies within our purview and decision-making capacity, regardless of what the state says,” said Jordan.