by Rick Langenberg:
Creek And Teller County Poised For Banner Gambling And Tourist Summer (related front page story)
That’s the attitude of local gaming operators and community leaders, who see the summer and fall of 2013 as a definite turning point, when local gamblers return to their favorite slots and table games, lodging rooms get filled, the streets bustle with activity from special events and tourists flock to local shops and restaurants.
Buoyed by an improvement in the state and national economy, an overall more optimistic outlook among casino patrons, a commitment to making Cripple Creek more pedestrian and visitor-friendly and in keeping Hwy. 24 open, local business operators are bullishly optimistic. Moreover, they aren’t too concerned about a sluggish start to 2013, with a 4.8 percent drop in overall betting activity and a 3 percent decline in casino winnings, compared to last year at this time. Most attribute this slide to the weather and have cited more positive industry-wide signs for a good year for gaming and tourism. “I think it is going to be a great summer. We are coming back,” vowed Jim Druck, co-owner and general manager of Big Jim’s Gambling Hall and Saloon.
Druck, who often converses with customers, sees a much more positive attitude among local gamblers and with their financial situations. “People seem to be a little more free now with their entertainment dollars,” said Druck, who believes that visitors have forsaken vacations and fun activities for too long. With improvements in the economy and positive trends for overall gaming, he sees Cripple Creek reaping definite benefits and emerging as a big winner in 2013. “I think the spring moisture we have had really helps,” added Druck.
Similar sentiments are echoed by other casino operators. Eric Rose, general manager of Creekers Casino Cripple Creek, said he is quite impressed with the efforts made by the Colorado Department of Transportation to insure that Hwy. 24 remains open throughout the summer and withstands the floods from the Waldo Canyon burn scar. “We are hoping for the best,” said Rose. The Waldo Canyon fire and closure of this main thoroughfare for nearly two weeks put a damper in last year’s gaming pursuits. Overall, Cripple Creek saw a slight increase in casino winnings, the first hike they recorded since 2004. But if this disaster hadn’t occurred, the town would have probably experienced a banner year, according to most operators.
Rose and other casino operators and government officials also are quite enthused about a $250,000 joint television advertising campaign, financed by the casinos and the city of Cripple Creek. They see better cooperation among both entities. “We are hopeful for a good summer for the casinos,” said City Administrator Ray White. While gaming revenues and betting action still hasn’t hit the boom times of earlier years, the city administrator cites a steady and strong increase in sales tax revenue, an indicator that visitors are returning to Cripple Creek. “We view this strong sales tax increase as a positive sign,” said White. “It has more longevity from what we have seen in the past. The numbers are ramping up. We are starting to come out of the economic slump. We still have a long way to go, but it is definitely getting a little better.”
Part of the increase in sales tax numbers is equated to the addition of more small retail, service and specialty shops cropping up on Bennett Avenue. The combination of gaming and retail has often featured an unlikely mix, based on past trends in the earlier years of gaming, but that scenario is now changing. As for gaming enhancements, the summer of 2013 should be relatively tame. Bronco Billy’s has recently gotten preliminary approval for another expansion, further to the east of its current property.
And talk still persists about the eventual reopening of the former Gold Rush casino property, at the prime corner of Bennett and Second Avenue, with speculation mounting regarding a new out-of-state gaming operator. This property was briefly run by a group of Colorado real estate investors late last summer and fall. But this debut was extremely short-lived and represented one of the briefest bids of any casino group in the history of Cripple Creek gaming. But unfortunately for Cripple Creek, the closure of The Rush last winter amounted to the loss of several hundred betting devices. As a result, the town now only features a little less than 4,000 slots and table games, which is similar to last summer, prior to the addition of The Rush, but well short of its gaming lineup last fall.
Major city improvements
Many improvements, though, are in the works for the city, in an effort to make Cripple Creek more visitor-friendly. Cripple Creek recently kicked off the new Gold Camp Connector, offering shuttle service between Cripple Creek and Victor. According to White, the city initiated a soft opening and will publicize the service more once it receives two new shuttle vehicles. “We are still dealing with some mechanical issues,” said White, in describing the service that will initially offer four daily rides and pick-up times between Cripple Creek and Victor.
This is part of a major grant Cripple Creek received to improve transportation service in the Cripple Creek/Victor district and southern Teller. And this summer, the town will debut a new free Bennett Avenue trolley service, offering free rides up and down the main street of town from Thursdays to Sundays. This is expected to play a big asset for visitors and gamblers trying to travel from one business to another, without having to huff and puff at nearly 10,000 feet or move their cars to a new parking spot. Overall, the city is poised to make major improvements to Bennett Avenue. This year, engineering and surveying work will occur for a major enhancement project, expected to cost between $2.5 million and $3 million. “We are looking at a complete makeover of Bennett Avenue,” said White. The brunt of this cost will be paid by the state, with the actual work expected to occur next year.
Cripple Creek is also eyeing enhancements to Teller One to grapple with an extremely unsafe intersection near the Mount Pisgah Cemetery. But like the Bennett Avenue makeover, this planning work is scheduled for this year with the actual construction and a significant realignment of the road slated for next year. And from a tourist and attraction standpoint, Cripple Creek is ready to wave a victory flag and is projecting more visitors.
After months of concern and speculation, the Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad will remain on track and will operate for another season with a slight route change. Due to the current mining project of the Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining Company, and the purchase of part of the railroad’s track, the train couldn’t complete its previous trek to the abandoned mining town of Anaconda.
The railroad, which attracts 40,000 patrons every summer, has been a key tourist attraction in the district since 1967. And as for other attractions, the city has made efforts to offer regular tours at the Fire Station #3 museum on Masonic, which recently held an open house and showcased a rare historic truck discovered in the basement of another historic attraction. Plus, a fundraising campaign is still continuing to purchase the Homestead House brothel museum so this property is not endangered by demolition or future real estate transactions.
The city is also gearing up for what White describes as an “extremely aggressive” special events schedule. In mid-June, the city will host a big cowboy gathering and an official rodeo, sanctioned by the Colorado Professional Rodeo Association. In addition, some of its other signature events, such as Donkey Derby Days, Independence Day celebrations, the Salute to American Veterans rally and Cruise Above the Clouds, are attracting much preliminary interest. “It should be a great year with our events,” said White. And politically, Cripple Creek and Teller County don’t have to worry about any pending competitive threats or dark clouds. For the first in about five years, Cripple Creek didn’t get assaulted by any video lottery terminal legislative propositions at the state level. And at least for now, Cripple Creek and Teller have survived another threat by Gilpin County to snag more of their gaming revenue