The Families First Children’s Museum downtown has been dark for two months. A note is tacked to the door letting would-be patrons know that the museum has been smoked out by fumes from the private cigar club downstairs.
Earlier tests found that the air quality in the museum at 225 W. Front St. exceeded EPA standards, according to museum Executive Director Nick Roberts, and a more recent round of testing detected what patrons’ olfactory nerves had suspected for months: Tobacco particulate is inside the museum.
“I don’t even know how many people” have complained, a museum manager told the City-County Health Board a year ago. But operators of Fool’s End, the private lounge in the building’s lower level, where members enter by keypad, still aren’t convinced there’s a problem. (The company’s attorney declined to comment). In the latest court filings entered into the lawsuit filed against the club by the Health Board, Fool’s End signaled that it will be scrutinizing patron complaints. To do that, they’ve hired Pat Barkey, the mustachioed and bespectacled University of Montana economist known for his annual statewide economics roadshow, to run a statistical analysis. If the case goes to trial, Barkey will testify “whether the statistical significance of complaints or persons allegedly affected in this matter are a ‘considerable number of persons’ as required by Montana law.”
Barkey’s number crunching isn’t even the most arcane of the semantic arguments that could decide whether the club can remain open. In addition to claiming that the club is a public nuisance, the health board contends that Fool’s End is violating the state’s Clean Indoor Air Act, which prohibits smoking in “enclosed public places.”
Both sides have hired engineers and architects to attest to the separateness or inseparability of the two rental units, which do not share an indoor entry point or a ventilation system. One of Fool’s End’s other expert witnesses, architect Steve Adler, submitted his analysis of what constitutes a “room,” a “space,” an “area” and, yes, a “building.”
The case is winding toward trial after Judge Leslie Halligan declined to issue a summary ruling last July, saying that a decision hinges on the dispute over how connected the business spaces are. Missoula County has now spent $2,500 in court costs, deputy county attorney John Hart says. But to Roberts, the situation seems pretty simple.
“This seems like a smoking gun reality that [the museum] is a business with tobacco in it,” he says.