Cripple Creek Countering Black Hawk Abuses With New Legislation

Colorado

by Rick Langenberg:

What a difference 20 years can make in the volatile arena of limited stakes gambling

In the early years of ringing slots, Cripple Creek and local casino developers often collided with state history buffs over their proposed preservation rules and guidelines, and the local historic committee was called the “hysterical society.”  And at one point, Cripple Creek even joined Black Hawk in opposing a sweeping legislative measure to give the state more say over new projects.

Well, two decades later, Cripple Creek is now asking for more oversight from the state, and specifically, it wants more defined rules regarding how historic preservation funds can be used. And for the first time since the beginning of gaming, the city of Cripple Creek is actually crafting its own pro-historic preservation legislation. In essence, the city wants the state historic group, now called History Colorado, to carry a bigger stick in regulating funding allocations in the three Colorado gaming communities.

Although no one is mentioning any names, the Cripple Creek legislation definitely targets Black Hawk, the goliath of limited stakes gaming and the home of the 33-story Ameristar resort–a project that vastly changed the gambling stakes for the three towns. Plus, concerns have been raised regarding Black Hawk’s use of these dollars for new buildings, infrastructure and other ventures that have nothing to do with preservation or even saving a historic attraction.   

According to Cripple Creek City Administrator Ray White, local leaders mainly want more guidance on the spending of historic preservation dollars allotted to the three towns, and how to best follow the original intent of the gaming amendment. “This is not a Cripple Creek versus Black Hawk thing,” said White, in an interview last week. “It really comes down to the appropriate use of historic preservation dollars.”

According to White, Cripple Creek has taken the high road and has only used its assortment of approximately $1 million a year for historic purposes, such as revitalizing old buildings, stabilizing structures and preserving important traditions, such as maintaining classic melodrama performances. “We have been pretty conservative on how we spend these dollars,” related White.

The only actual new building it used these funds for involved the Cripple Creek Heritage Center project. “It highlighted our heritage.  We felt that was important,” said the city administrator.

But the scenario is different in Black Hawk, according to White. He cites Black Hawk’s allotment of historic preservation dollars for an Information Technology center and huge, several million dollar infrastructure projects, not to mention questionable spending on enhancing the homes of elected officials. What irks White and other officials the most is that Black Hawk is basically spending historic preservation dollars on a creative extension of the town’s general fund.

Many say that wasn’t the intent of the original gaming amendment that awarded historic preservation dollars to the three towns and throughout the state for specific purposes. With Black Hawk’s high winning take of gambling bets, it currently receives the lion’s share of these preservation dollars, often generating more than $3.5 million a year. But concerns are mounting on how these dollars are spent, and on establishing a fair playing field.    

Cripple Creek’s legislative effort has attracted much attention. It’s still unclear if the package will be introduced during the current session or in 2015. “We want to lay out the groundwork this year,” said White.  “We have gotten pretty good support.”

The proposed legislation has received the preliminary sponsorship of Senators Kevin Grantham of Fremont County and Lois Tochtrop of Adams County, and has received the endorsement of some local leaders.

White hopes that Cripple Creek will receive even more support from even former unlikely allies, such as the governor’s office, and a plethora of state lawmakers.  “We still have a lot of work to do,” said the city administrator, who doesn’t believe the bill will get introduced this year.

White also says the city is seeking more state guidance due to the fact that it has a number of historic buildings that need work, and the town could use more of a helping hand from the state to restore these structures.  

Overall, one of the big ongoing concerns with gaming hinges on state historic rules with no teeth. Black Hawk has created much controversy over huge goliath casinos that critics say clash with the original concept behind gaming in the three Colorado towns: To revitalize the communities economically by saving 19th century historic structures and by preserving its golden era between 1896 and 1920.  Historic critics say Black Hawk deserves an F-minus grade in this regard, while Cripple Creek has probably recorded a B-plus.        

However, Cripple Creek’s new legislation won’t deal too much with the construction of new buildings.  That effort was previously attempted by state officials in the late 1990s in a bill sponsored by former state Senator Ken Chlouber.  But it was defeated following much opposition by officials in both Cripple Creek and Black Hawk.  

No shortage of gaming fights

This isn’t the only gaming battle on the horizon. Cripple Creek is still fighting Black Hawk and Gilpin County over the distribution of gaming revenue. Gilpin contends it is getting the short end of the stick because the lion’s share of gaming taxes comes from Black Hawk casinos.  It wants a change in the distribution formula in a way that would greatly benefit Gilpin and Black Hawk, to the detriment of Cripple Creek, Teller County and Central City.

This legislation, which may get proposed by Democratic Senator Jeanne Nicholson, will probably get attached to another bill this spring.

In addition, Cripple Creek is keeping a close eye on a slew of efforts to expand gaming, with bids for video lottery slots and table games at a current horse track in Arapahoe County and at future tracks in Pueblo and Mesa counties. Plus, plans are in the works to re-explore gaming in Trinidad, which once eyed this possibility in the 1990s but decided to not pursue limited stakes gambling due to local opposition. But with a downturn in its economy, this idea may get revisited.  The prospects of future gaming are making Cripple Creek officials quite nervous.  “Any future gaming in southern Colorado would really hurt us.  It would dilute the market,” said the Cripple Creek city administrator.

Plus, plans are also underway for gaming in the small town of De Beque, 30 miles east of Grand Junction.

Virtually all of these plans for future gaming would require statewide votes. To date, none of these pursuits have moved forward legislatively, but local officials are gearing up for considerable combat duty in the state capital.