Facing one of its toughest decisions — if not the toughest decision — of the year, the Powell City Council voted to award the city’s last remaining retail liquor license to the Powell Clocktower Inn.
On Monday night, the council voted 4-2 to award the license to the planned hotel and conference center instead of a proposed fitness center and sports bar.
Councilmembers Jim Hillberry, Scott Mangold, Lesli Spencer and Floyd Young voted to give the license to the Powell Clocktower. Councilmen Eric Paul and Tim Sapp voted no, favoring an application from the Lovell-based Club Dauntless, which has been seeking to expand in Powell.
Both were considered deserving applicants for the license, but with just the one retail license available, the council had to choose one over the other.
Councilman Mangold called Club Dauntless a “great project” and said it would be “great for the community.” However, Mangold said his constituents supported giving the retail liquor license to the Powell Clocktower Inn.
“Everyone that I have talked to said that it should go to the hotel,” Mangold said. “I suppose they feel they have more skin in the game with the hotel ... but as far as the public lobbying me and saying what they want, it’s really a no-brainer for them.”
The city has made a substantial commitment to the planned hotel, helping secure a $2.62 million state grant for the initial construction of the conference center portion of the project. Proponents of the public-private partnership say the conference center — with a capacity for 200 to 250 people — and the 70- to 80-room hotel will be a major economic boost for Powell.
In contrast, Paul said his constituents supported giving the license to Club Dauntless.
“What I [have heard] several times was that Club Dauntless put their application in first,” said Paul. He cast the lone dissenting vote against seeking state funding for the Clocktower in June, citing concerns about giving the hotel an unfair advantage.
“They’re both worthy contenders,” Paul said of the two applicants for the license, “... but [Club] Dauntless comes out ahead in two categories: They put their application in first and they could open first.”
Club Dauntless co-owner Stacy Bair requested the liquor license on Oct. 19 and told the council she could have her fitness center and adjoining high-end sports bar up and running by November 2019. Hotelier Steve Wahrlich, meanwhile, requested the license on behalf of the Powell Clocktower Inn on Nov. 5; he hopes to open the facility in the spring of 2020.
Councilwoman Spencer summed up the tough decision that the council had to make.
“From the folks that I have heard from and talked to, both projects are extremely welcome — and needed — in this community,” Spencer said. “I see both sides, but I also remember … people were pushing for a hotel ... 22 years ago — and we’re still pushing for a hotel. And this is the opportunity to make it happen.”
“By no means am I discounting the workout facility and the gym. I think it’s a great idea, I’m a supporter and I would be there,” she added, but “it’s really, really bad timing and that’s what’s hard.”
Wahrlich, who owns the Best Western Plus ClockTower Inn in Billings, said he felt “a sense of relief” to have the license approved.
“It’s another positive step forward,” he said.
On the other side, Club Dauntless co-owner Bair was disappointed after the meeting.
“I really don’t feel that the council heard much of anything I said,” she said. “I offered to withdraw my application, but asked for answers as to why the hotel was unable to use the bar and grill license as previously discussed. I am disappointed that council seemed to overlook this question and disregarded my offer to withdraw.”
Wahrlich told the council last month that he might be able to make do with a more limited bar and grill liquor license. It requires that 60 percent of a business’s sales come from food and no more than 40 percent from alcohol.
However, Wahrlich said Monday that a bar and grill license ultimately didn’t “weigh out” for the hotel and conference center.
“One of the things that I had not looked at was the operation of it — how do you make it work from that standpoint?” Wahrlich said. “From the very beginning, I’ve always stated that I did not want to build a restaurant — and from that standpoint, making this work with utilizing a catering kitchen was very viable, except it does not weigh out operationally and functionally from that standpoint.”
Before the vote, Bair told the council members that, even if they awarded the license to the hotel, she could still build her facility and perhaps wait for an available liquor license; she has said a bar is needed to make the whole project financially feasible.
“I’m willing to stick my neck out here and proceed with construction plans because the city of Powell deserves Club Dauntless — and the people are excited about it,” Bair said.
However, after listening to several council members state that their constituents supported giving Powell Clocktower Inn the liquor license instead of Club Dauntless, Bair had second thoughts.
“Comments by a few council members have me questioning the feasibility and timing of this project for Powell,” she said. “The project is on hold at this point.”
(Tribune Editor CJ Baker contributed reporting.)