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Helena, Montana

Gambling project falls short of Destination 
By Charles S. Johnson of The Montana Standard (Standard State Bureau)

April 2, 2003

The House rejected a bill Tuesday for a $1.8 billion project called "Destination Montana" that would have legalized wide-open gambling in a Butte entertainment district. 

On a 59-41 vote that cut across party lines, the House turned down House Bill 757, by Rep. John Witt, on behalf of the proposed project. The tally showed 33 Republicans and 26 Democrats opposing the bill, while 20 Republicans and 21 Democrats supported it. 

Critics questioned the legitimacy of the proposal and warned that expanding gambling in Butte would automatically allow Montana's Indian reservations to follow suit. That eventually could lead to wide-open gambling across the state, they said. 

"It sounds to good to be true, and it probably is," said Rep. Dave Kasten, R-Brockway, who added the figures cited by Destination Montana backers seemed exaggerated. "Ladies and gentlemen, this bill -- it belongs in the Berkeley Pit." 

Backers of the bill touted it as a much-needed economic shot in the arm for Butte as well as the entire state, one that would draw five million tourists annually and provide thousands of jobs. 

"This bill opens the door to a very major economic development project," Witt said. "It is a current wasteland that would be converted to an oasis." 

Afterward, disappointed supporters of Destination Montana were unsure whether they would try to seek reconsideration of HB 757. They face a pressing deadline, as all tax bills must be shipped to the other chamber vote like this." 

"It doesn't look real good right now," said Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive Judy Jacobson, a former state senator. 

Evan Barrett, executive director of Butte Local Development Corp., which was promoting the project, said, "I would be surprised if there was a reconsideration motion, but you never know." 

House members debated the bill for two hours in front of dozens of Butte people watching from the gallery. 

Witt and lawmakers from Butte and Anaconda touted the potential local and statewide benefits of the project. Ten casinos in the entertainment district would be allowed to offer all forms of gambling --including slot machines, blackjack, craps and roulette-- except sports betting, with no betting or prize limits. They could be open 24 hours a day, unlike other bars and casinos. Destination Montana backers said they also planned to build 40 music halls like those in Branson, Mo., a theme park, three professional quality golf courses, six high-altitude training camps for professional and amateur athletics, a 10,000seat stadium and a convention center. 

Destination Montana, Witt said, would create about 24,000 permanent jobs, including nearly 14,000 in southwestern Montana. The project would raise $376 million annually for state and local governments. 

"This is economic development," Rep. Brad Newman, D-Butte, said. "Are southwestern Montana's unemployment lines so short that we don't need thousands of new jobs? Is Montana's economy so strong we can turn away investors willing to invest $1.8 billion?" 

Added Rep. Jesse Laslovich, D-Anaconda: "I see hope right through the eyes of the people I talk to in Butte and Anaconda. I see hope burning through their eyes. I don't see it as desperate." 

Rep. Jim Keane, D-Butte, said HB757 was "a plane full of capital" that would land elsewhere if the Legislature rejects the bill. He said the state needs more money and can raise it through HB757 without having to boost taxes to better fund needed government services. 

But Rep. Scott Mendenhall, R-Cardwell, who has worked in the economic development field, asked lawmakers to evaluate the project as though they sat on a bank's board of directors using these three criteria: 

--Marketing analysis. A bank board would want to see a detailed market analysis, he said, but the developers told him that none existed. Said Mendenhall: "For an $1.8 billion project, wouldn't you contract with a high-level marketing firm?" 

--Financing. Mendenhall said he asked how the developers how much of their own money they were putting up. They said $10 million initially for the $1.8 billion proposal, and they would get other investors. "A bank committee would have to see a lot more equity than that," Mendenhall said. 

--Capacity. A bank board would want to determine whether the developers were capable of completing such a large project, based on past experience. Mendenhall asked them if they had ever completed such a project. He said they said no, but they had done apartment complexes. 

"I think we fail on all three counts," Mendenhall said, adding: "It's kind of incredible that today is April 1, otherwise known as April Fool's Day. Let's not be fooled by this. I have a vision of Montana. It is not the vision of the Las Vegas strip." 

Others warned that expanding gambling in Butte would entitle Indian reservations under federal law to have wide-open gambling. Backers of the project have offered the state's seven reservations and the Little Shell Band of Chippewa to run an 11th casino in Butte and share the profits if they forfeit their own right to expand gambling on their reservations. So far, tribes have not formally responded to the developers' offer. 

Rep. Stan Fisher, R-Bigfork, predicted the tribes wouldn't agree to operate the single Butte casino. 

"In my mind, we're really faced with gambling on the reservation," he said, predicting the Flathead Indian Reservation would have a development of the magnitude of the Butte proposal. 

All six American Indian members of the Montana House voted for HB757. Rep. Frank Smith, D-Poplar, said: "You've got to take a step ahead. You can't walk backward." 

Rep. Rosie Buzzas, D-Missoula, said Montana is in desperate times but asked: "Are we as Montanans willing to take jobs at any price? We know the costs to society (of gambling)." 

She said HB757 amounts to a deregulation of gambling in Montana. She added: "Don't be fooled. This will be a gateway to opening up expanding gambling to other cities in Montana." 

But one supporter, Rep. Carol Lambert, R-Broadus, said she lives about as far from Butte as anyone can in Montana but believes even her small town might see another job or two because of the project. 

"This is not about gambling," Lambert said. "This is about growth and Montana needs growth." 

Copyright Charles S. Johnson and the Montana Standard, reproduced by permission.


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