Cripple Creek getting serious about downtown makeover Historic Newspaper Hub may face wrecking ball

The nice guy act is over in Cripple Creek’s campaign to spruce up its downtown.

In addition, one of the town’s more controversial, deteriorating structures, and a hub for local journalism for decades, could face the wrecking ball.

These are the latest developments in a downtown improvement program, aimed at fixing up many historic buildings located along Cripple Creek’s main drag. This is one of the main goals of city leaders, who want to make the main street more attractive, pedestrian-friendly and enticing for visitors.

Cripple Creek Development Director Larry Manning last week reported about a 50 percent response rate in letters sent out to the owners/operators of properties on Bennett Avenue that are in need of enhancements, such as painting, exterior trim work and minor repairs. The majority of these buildings are vacant.

Altogether, the first stage of the downtown enhancement is estimated at roughly $10,000, with the targeting of approximately 10 structures.

“We have received a good level of interest in this program,” said Manning.

Under this effort, participating owners would only pay 50 percent of the costs for sprucing up the exterior of their buildings, with the town’s historic preservation funds footing the bills for the remainder of the expenses. And under this partnership, the work would be contracted out by the city.

And for property owners who don’t respond, they will soon receive another bash of letters that won’t take such a friendly tone. In fact, if they don’t cooperate, they will lose the option of having the city contribute 50 percent of the enhancement work, according to Manning. And more notably, they could get hit with fines and criminal penalties and even face the prospects of a property lien.

“Most likely we will go ahead and do the work on these buildings and bill the owners or put a lien on the property,” said City Administrator Ray White, in discussing the city’s attempt to deal with uncooperative property owners.

In a workshop last November, City Attorney Lee Phillips told the council the city has the legal right to take firm action against buildings in the downtown core that become unsightly and that aren’t maintained. “This issue is not unique to Cripple Creek,” said Phillips.

However, Phillips, who also represents such towns as Alma, Colorado, suggested trying to obtain voluntary compliance, rather than issuing fines.

The council then decided to send out letters to owners/operators of buildings that needed attention, with a special emphasis on Bennett Avenue. Moreover, they agreed to take a friendly approach by advocating the 50 percent funding arrangement.

Eventually, the city plans to do a full inventory of structures located throughout the entire city. Initially, the city plans to concentrate on “cosmetic repairs” and doesn’t plan to propose any major structural overhauls or demolition work.

Fate of Union Block Unclear
One exception, though, is a several-story building, located next to the Colorado Grande at 326 East Bennett, which served as the former home for a number of newspapers in the district.

Last September, the 1896 building, known as the Union Block, was considered for a special economic hardship that would signal the green light for the 10,000-square-foot structure to come down to make room for a possible casino parking lot, as long as certain conditions are met. But this plan, submitted by building owner Judith Rutherford, was pulled from the table, following a dispute over whether the property could be rehabilitated. The property is now being analyzed by a structural engineer, under the direction of real estate broker Reed Grainger.

However, the building recently incurred more serious storm-related damage and has many windows boarded up.
“It now looks like a Hell hole,” said local business owner Lou Goldman, when addressing the council last week. “Are we going to do anything about that?”

Goldman, who has been a big critic of dilapidated structures that give the town a bad image, suggested having the building condemned.

In recent weeks, more support has been growing to have this structure demolished. But current historic preservation rules don’t allow this to occur, unless a special economic hardship case can be proven. In the previous September hearing, Grainger, who has been representing Rutherford, argued that the price of renovating the building would make it impractical due to the current business climate. He strongly endorsed the economic hardship case, saying the owner couldn’t sell the property unless it was demolished.

A few residents, however, expressed worries about setting a bad precedent. They noted that an important part of the campaign for limited stakes gaming focused on preserving historic buildings.

However, other civic leaders argue that much of the structure’s historic integrity has already been lost. Plus, city officials have indicated that a previous 1994 engineering report concluded that the building faced major structural challenges.

City elected leaders hope the new engineering report, which will analyze the current state of the building, may resolve the future of the Union Block.