by Rick Langenberg
This week marks the 22nd birthday bash of limited stakes gambling, a development that changed the face of the county, led to the infusion of millions of new visitors and a record spree of building activity, but posed new challenges.
In Oct. 1991, downtown Cripple Creek lit up with a handful of small casinos as a campaign started by a group of local business operators became official, following a positive state-wide vote the year before on a snowy November evening. By mid-summer, the casino boom exploded, leading to more than 30 gaming hubs, as some financial experts labeled the movement as the biggest economic development bonanza since the gold rush. Millions of dollars were pumped into the resurrection of old dilapidated buildings and the town formed a planning and historic preservation commission for the first time in its history. In addition, local meetings were quite lively, frequented by more than 100 people, as clashes often erupted over 200-foot-tall flag and sign displays and new building designs that incorporated the gaming industry, but tried to adhere to the town’s 1896 character. In many ways, the town was forced to re-brand itself within a short period and adopt new zoning laws and master plans in record speed.
Over the past two decades, the Cripple Creek gaming industry has experienced a series of ups and downs and has encountered many shake-out periods, accentuated by such trends as considerable consolidation with large establishments taking over smaller ones and a growing stabilization of the industry; the death of small ‘mom and pop’ gaming halls; an extremely competitive marketplace with more options for local players and visitors, the addition of new games such as craps and roulette and the ability to have 24-hour gaming; an unprecedented amount of infrastructure and building improvements as the town now gears up for $5 million in downtown and road enhancements next year; and a festive environment, with regular special events and the hosting of one of the more successful theater groups in the entire Pikes Peak region with the Thin Air Theatre company. And the non-gaming retail base, after encountering tough times for many years, is slowly making a rebound.
Overall, most gaming operators are bullishly optimistic over the gamble the town took more than two decades ago, but admit the industry faces massive competition and challenges. In the last few years, the industry has been forced to survive the hurdles of Mother Nature due to the Waldo Canyon fire of 2012 and then the flash floods of 2013.
“I think it was a very good thing for us to get gaming. It has been a big economic boom for the town,” said Chris Hazlett, a Cripple Creek councilman and business owner and a former police chief prior to gambling. “It has definitely enhanced the quality of life here. We have probably the lowest water rates anywhere in the state. But I just wish everyone else hadn’t gotten it (limited stakes gaming) also,” he added, in describing the current competitive environment facing the Creek gaming industry.
Cripple Creek has survived the threats from other Colorado town seeking to join the gambling bandwagon, such as Pueblo, Trinidad and even Manitou Springs. At one time, as many as 60 Colorado towns considered adding limited gaming to their business lineup.
Still, gaming is now located in practically every state in the country and the town must weather threats from business operators who want to add thousands of video slots to Colorado racetracks. Relations between Teller and Gilpin County, the home of huge casinos in Black Hawk, are extremely rocky. Gilpin officials continue to politically argue that they should be awarded a larger share of the gaming revenue pie since they have the biggest establishments in the state. If this campaign ever proves successful, Teller and Cripple Creek would lose a minimum of $2.5 million in revenue a year.
According to Teller County Commission Chairman Dave Paul, the Gilpin County threat is still alive and could become a legislative issue in 2014.
Pros outweigh the cons
Despite these political hurdles, civic and business leaders say the pros definitely out-weigh the cons.
“We are very happy to have gaming here. It has provided many jobs and been a stable industry,” said Cripple Creek Finance Director Paul Harris, who has been with the city since the mid-1990s. Harris admits that town would have been in dire straits if it hadn’t taken the step to try to resurrect its fortunes through games of chance.
“We were pretty much dying,” admitted Hazlett. When he was police chief, Hazlett concedes that the entire town budget didn’t even compare to what a single department may now receive. According to old-time residents, the town, which did well with tourism through the 1960s and 1970s, just couldn’t compete any longer with the Colorado mountain resorts. Cripple Creek and Victor often boasted of more dogs than people during the winter. As a result, a group of merchants looked at the model of Deadwood, South Dakota as a possible example of what they could achieve and conducted several site visits.
The initial gaming campaign took off when Creek merchants and local leaders joined forces with Central City and Black Hawk and overcame strong resistance from then Governor Roy Romer by launching a remarkable state petition campaign and then convincing nearly 60 percent of Colorado voters to allow the three towns to have limited gaming. Another positive vote occurred in 2008, which paved the way for additional games, $100 single-wager limits and 24-hour gaming.
Initially, the Colorado towns didn’t have much competition, as this industry was fairly new, especially for historic mountain areas. “It was pretty unique when we got it,” admitted Hazlett. “There was hardly any town around the country that had gaming.”
That competition advantage, though, didn’t last, as gaming took off in the 1990s across the country, with reports circulating that more people visited casinos than ballparks.
The popularity of gaming created many challenges for the local gaming industry.
Harris cites a flat market that really hasn’t experienced any upward swings since 2004. “We had a little spike last year,” said Harris. He cited the economy and the highway problems associated Hwy. 24 as the big hurdles. “Our future is really going to come down to how the economy improves and the road improvements that are made to Hwy. 24,” said the finance director.
The town now regularly bustles with between 3,800 and 4,000 gaming devices. Currently, the gaming industry is showing a 2.9 percent decline in total bet volume from last year at this time and a minor letdown in casino winnings. Many of these numbers are attributed to the frequent closures of Hwy. 24, a situation resulting from record floods occurring in the Waldo Canyon burn scar. Also, the market got a little smaller with the closure of The Rush casino, inside the old Gold Rush building last winter.
“We did about as well as expected,” said Marc Murphy, the general manager and co-owner of Bronco Billy’s, in describing the impact of the weather. Many long-time customers haven’t frequented local casinos as much this summer due to the threats of the highway getting shut.
Still, casino operators have gotten quite creative in marketing their properties and joining forces with the city in joint advertising ventures. Some are even doing expansions. Bronco Billy’s will soon open a new 1,800-square-foot expansion into the former Jahns Jewelry store to provide the establishment with more table games. “We are very excited,” said Murphy, in describing the addition. This marks the seventh major addition the casino has undertaken since it started as a small gaming hall in Oct. 1991. “I never thought we would have grown the way we have, with a casino with nearly 750 devices, 330 employees and three restaurants,” said Murphy, in a recent interview in describing the growth experienced by Bronco Billy’s. Murphy, who has manned the managerial ropes for the same casino since the beginning of gaming, has seen many changes.
And from a community standpoint, gaming continues to wave a big victory flag. Next year, the town will feature probably its most ambitious infrastructure project in recent years with a complete $2.6 million facelift of Bennett Avenue in an effort to provide larger sidewalks and a better atmosphere for visitors and pedestrians.
And more importantly, unlike Black Hawk, Cripple Creek still maintains a historic feel. “When you walk down Bennett Avenue, it looks like a historic mining town,” said Paul. “I believe the gaming in Cripple Creek has done what it was intended to do through the gaming amendment.”
And the town still features non-gaming shops, not like it once did, but this retail base has shown signs of improvement over the last several years. “We are seeing more retail shops,” said Harris, who contends that sales tax revenue in Cripple Creek is growing. “That is real important,” said Harris in citing the importance of having non-gaming activities and shops.