Despite receiving 117 emails urging them not to, Billings City Council members voted 7-4 Monday to approve special review that will allow The Den to move its casino, bar and proposed food service from West Park Promenade to a spot 1,100 feet west of Ben Steele Middle School.
Joining Mayor Tom Hanel on the prevailing side were council members Brent Cromley, Mike Yakawich, Larry Brewster, Angela Cimmino, Al Swanson and Dick Clark.
Voting against the proposal were council members Rich McFadden, Chris Friedel, Ryan Sullivan and Shaun Brown.
Terra Pierce, who together with her husband Rich Wrobel operates The Den, plan to purchase land just west of the intersection of 54th Street West and Grand Avenue to build a multi-tenant building. Part of the proposed 5,000-square-foot facility will be reserved for a casino, with alcohol and food served in a separate portion.
The Den has been at its West Park location for more than 50 years and is owned by Terra Pierce's father, David Pierce.
“We operate another business (The Stadium Club in the Billings Heights) with alcohol and food,” Pierce told the council. “Families come in to eat, and it’s OK.”
She said she and her husband are looking at a variety of tenants to share the new location, including a yoga studio, a yogurt shop, a dental practice, a hair salon and a sushi restaurant. “We hope the neighbors will embrace those too,” she said.
But many who spoke Monday told the council they did not support The Den's request.
“Alcohol, crime and gambling are the operative words here,” said Karen Kosiarek. “This is one of Billings’ nicest communities, and we’d like to keep it that way.”
“We have almost as many casinos as we do police officers, and that’s starting to bother me a little bit,” said Larry Arpin, noting the current count is now 150 Billings Police officers and 134 casinos within city limits.
“I’m concerned that putting a business there increases the chance of a child (walking or riding a bicycle to or from school) being involved in an accident with an impaired driver,” said Ron Spence.
Disapproving the request “doesn’t impede commerce,” said Denise Joy, a councilwoman-elect who works as a special needs assistant at Ben Steele Middle School. “It sends the wrong message. Be brave. Choose values above and beyond profit.”
Larry Karls, who owns the 2.1-acre property where The Den plans to build, said there’s “a high demand for business in the area. There are rooftops in every direction, and I think it’s time to get restaurants and services in that area.”
He said when The Den is constructed on the property he plans to sell to Pierce and Wrobel, it won’t be visible from the school.
“If we can get this business going, the whole area will fill in,” he said.
Besides, he added with a wry grin, “I’ve been mowing the lots for 12 years, and I’m getting tired of it.”
Just before it was time to vote after more than two hours of testimony and discussion, Hanel urged the council to “take your emotions out of the decision.”
“Try to think about this from a professional and legal standpoint,” he said. “We all want the city to prosper, but we want to do it in a proper manner.”