For the second time in as many months, the Jackpot Casino Group is asking officials in Manhattan for permission to establish a restaurant, casino and bar at 110 S. Broadway.

This project has been in development for three years but was dealt a major blow in December, when the Town Council upheld a city staff recommendation to deny Jackpot a conditional use permit (CUP) at that location.

In denying the permit, the council cited Town Code 10-11-9, which prohibits a casino from being located within 250 feet of a park or residential area. A staff report dated Nov. 16, 2020, stated that 110 S. Broadway is located approximately 230 feet south of Railroad Park and 190 feet north of a residential transition zone.

Jackpot representatives have appealed the decision to the Manhattan Board of Adjustment, which will host a public hearing on the petition next Wednesday, Feb. 24. The board’s decision to either approve or deny the permit will be final.

During the Dec. 10 meeting at which the council denied the conditional use permit, Jackpot owner R. Kasey Harte outlined his company’s attempts to bring its business to Manhattan. He said Jackpot originally planned to open an establishment at 214 W. Main, next door to the Oasis, but the company abandoned that plan due to the high estimated cost of construction at that address. Nevertheless, before the plan was changed, the Town Council unanimously passed Jackpot’s original CUP application for the Main Street site in 2018. At that time, Harte said, Town Code 10-11-9 was not mentioned, even though 214 W. Main lies within 250 feet of a park and residential area.

In his latest application for a variance to the same rule at 110 S. Broadway, Harte wrote that “not once during our due diligence with these projects did anyone mention we could run up against a town code issue.” He also noted that two other businesses with gambling machines – Sir Scott’s Oasis and Broken Arrow Bar & Casino – are located on Main Street directly across from a public park and bordering a residential zoning district.

Prior to the council’s vote to deny the CUP on Dec. 10, Councilman Greg Schack said the reason the first CUP was granted to Jackpot was that it was “grandfathered in before these rules came about,” as the previous business located there had gaming machines.

“We as a council felt that it was an appropriate use at that point, but now we’re talking about a completely different spot and a completely different set of circumstances,” Schack said then. “If we have code, we need to stick to it.”

In an interview this week with the Belgrade News, Manhattan Mayor Glen Clements agreed. He said some existing businesses that allow gambling have been permitted to remain open even though they are located near a park.

“There are some businesses on Main Street, which is right across the street from Railroad Park, that have gambling machines in them and they were grandfathered in,” he said. “They were there before that code was written in.”

Clements said there has been some discussion about adjusting the code given Main Street’s proximity to the park, but that no steps have yet been taken to do so. He said there are viable places in town for casinos to be located.

“I think there are likely locations in town where you can have a casino and not be in violation of that code,” Clements said. “Maybe not on Main Street, but there are other locations.”

In his variance application, Harte maintains that 110 S. Broadway is an appropriate location. The application states, in part, that Realtors involved in Jackpot’s purchase of the property never indicated there would be any problem establishing a restaurant, bar and casino on the site.

“We also took the former Mayor and City Inspector through the building,” the application states. “The City Inspector gave us suggestions on building code issues and also knew our intent to operate a restaurant, bar and casino and thought it would work well at that location,

“Again, there was no mention of Manhattan Town Code Section 10-11-19. As (a) result, and in reliance on the representations made to us, we bought the building,” Harte wrote.

Following the council’s action in December, Manhattan Jackpot Casino, LLC submitted a variance application to the Board of Adjustment stating that the Town Code has placed a hardship on the business.

In the application, Harte wrote that Jackpot has invested a significant amount of time, money, and effort to bring a new business to Manhattan, and it still hopes to do so. However, he stated, time is running out. Manhattan Jackpot, LLC purchased a Montana All-Beverage License with Gaming in May 2017, and the license will lapse if it is not put into use at an approved location by April 21 of this year.

Harte also wrote that the liquor license deadline caused company officials to plan a smaller remodel to the South Broadway building than originally intended, “using Crystal Browning’s great Pizza on Broadway, remodeling that existing space to accommodate more seating for a larger restaurant, create a nice sports bar area, and small pocket casino (which we intend to have only eight (8) video gaming machines.)”

“This restaurant, bar and casino will offer a nice service to the town that does not currently exist,” Harte wrote. “This is the only way to save the License and start our relationship with the patrons of Manhattan.”

During the December council meeting, Kathy Bushnell of Jackpot made similar points. She said the restaurant would be similar to the 19th Hole Grill in Bozeman and would serve breakfast on the weekends, thereby filling a needed niche in the community. In her written testimony for the variance application, she reiterated those points in response to citizens who cited concerns in December that the business would threaten Manhattan’s small-town character.

“We provide a place for our customers to come to and feel appreciated and cared for,” Bushnell wrote.

At the public hearing held during the Dec. 10 Town Council meeting, more citizens testified against granting the conditional use permit than those who spoke in favor of it. In addition, the council received written comments from 16 citizens who opposed the CUP and six who favored it.

Lindsay Schack, president of the Planning Board, reminded the council of its responsibility to make zoning decisions with the whole community in mind, and said conditions needed to be met before approval.

Former councilman Buck Buchanan cautioned that granting a conditional use permit is basically “the foot in the door – once that’s granted, there’s no guarantee that what you thought was going to happen is going to happen.”

And Glee Dunbar, who owns a mental health counseling practice in town, said she was concerned about the prospect of adding a casino to a town already in high need of mental health support, adding that pathological gambling can trigger or worsen symptoms of some mental health issues and addictions.

Jackpot’s Bushnell also addressed that concern in her letter in support of the variance application, stating that gambling “offers service that is appreciated by many, while also allowing us to offer other services to the community.”

“It offers a place for locals to hang out, relax and enjoy the fine company of others,” she wrote.

She added that gambling provides very generous tax revenues that support education and other important state programs.

Public comment will be heard by the Board of Adjustment at the Feb. 24 meeting at 3 p.m. The public may attend via Zoom or in person at 207 S. 6th St. Written comments also may be submitted by mail to the Town of Manhattan, P.O. Box 96, Manhattan, MT 59741-0096 or via e-mail at townofmanhattan@gmail.com. More information is available on the Town of Manhattan’s website.