By Rick Langenberg:
(related front page story)
After two consecutive summers of fires, floods and other calamities, Cripple Creek casino operators and city leaders are betting on a more prosperous season, and are hoping for a reprise from Mother Nature. And the local gaming industry, despite hitting some tough bumps in the road, remains quite resilient as it heads into the 22nd summer season of limited stakes gambling. Gaming operators and city leaders are pursuing an active marketing and advertising push, and this summer and fall is jam packed with special events, as the town continues an aggressive push to attract more visitors.
Also, this summer marks the most intensive infrastructure project ever attempted in the Creek since the early 1990s, with Cripple Creek gambling big on a $4.5 million makeover of Bennett Avenue. “We are making a tremendous investment in our future,” said Cripple Creek City Administrator Ray White, in describing a project occurring over the next few months that leaders hope will revitalize the town. The final product, expected to be finished in October, will feature wider sidewalks, better traffic lanes, more defined parking, larger areas for people to congregate, a resurfacing of the main street and considerable infrastructure enhancement, and a more attractive and pedestrian-friendly town. “We view this as a key element to our economic development,” added White.
In the early stages of the project, the city administrator contends the construction is “right on track” and the effort appears poised for an October completion.
But the real determining factor for the success of this summer hinges on whether Hwy. 24 can remain open on a regular basis.
“We are really hoping we will get cooperation from the weather,” said White in describing probably the biggest obstacle haunting the gaming town. “We really need a break.” Similar sentiments are echoed by gaming operators, who are worried if Hwy 24, even with millions in flood-mitigation work, can withstand the brunt of major storms in the Waldo Canyon burn scar.
The last two summers were capped by high hopes due a rebounding national economy. But these optimistic prospects were crushed by the Waldo Canyon fire and then last summer’s record floods. These disasters led to the closure of Hwy 24; events that forced business leaders to consider alternative transportation avenues. The casino industry never quite recovered from these curve balls hurled by Mother Nature.
The other main obstacle for the gaming industry deals with more competition and a flat market. During a recent council meeting, several key gaming operators cited the realities of a contracted market. “You can’t look at casinos as bottomless pits of money,” said Mike Smith of the Double Eagle. “This (gaming) market is going to get smaller.”
A recent study by the American Gaming Association indicated that overall casino revenue across the country increased by only one percent. At the same time, more city and county governments are welcoming new casinos into their communities with open arms, as much of the previous negative crime-related perceptions regarding gaming have been put to rest. As a result, there are now only a few areas in the country that don’t have some form of legal gambling. “I think it was a very good thing for us to get gambling. It has been a big economic boom for our town,” said Cripple Creek Councilman and business owner Chris Hazlett in a previous interview. “It has definitely enhanced our life here. But I just wished everyone else hadn’t gotten it also.”
In fact, the monopoly the three Colorado gaming towns have enjoyed in the limited gaming arena is at risk.This November, Colorado voters may face a ballot proposition that could open the door for racetrack slots in three current and future venues, including one in Pueblo. This effort was denied a slot on the ballot through the state legislature, but proponents of horse track slots and legal gambling are attempting to obtain enough petition signatures to force a state-wide vote. “We are very concerned about this,” said White. Already, the state and city gaming associations and gaming operators from all three town are gearing up for a counter campaign. “This may be one of the few issues that we join sides with Black Hawk,” quipped the city administrator.
Locally, Cripple Creek casinos, which now sport close to 4,000 betting devices, have been losing market share to Black Hawk, where the state’s largest casinos are located. Some of this decline is attributed to the Hwy 24 situation, but the recovery from the recession for Cripple Creek is taking a little longer than expected, according to local business experts. Teller County as a whole experienced the great recession of 2008 a little later than other parts of the country, but its recovery is occurring at a slower pace.
A great season for special events
Despite these obstacles, the city and a number of casino operators are fighting back with a big marketing push, regular promotions and an active special events schedule. “We are being about as aggressive as we can,” said White, who cites a $700,000-plus budget for marketing and special events this year. “We are doing what we can to spend more money to get people up here.” In addition, the city has joined forces with the casinos for a $250,000 advertising campaign.
Cripple Creek last weekend hosted a major professional rodeo event that was previously recognized as one of the best new Colorado Rodeo association competitions. Later this month, Cripple Creek features the 83rd Donkey Derby Days festival from June 28-29. This gala celebration has gained a dose of new life in the last few years, with the help of the city. Even in the modern era of gaming, this event has highlighted Cripple Creek’s colorful heritage. Other key festivals in Cripple Creek and southern Teller include Cripple Creek’s July 4th celebration, Victor Gold Rush Days, two Cripple Creek block parties, the Teller County Fair, Salute to American Veterans Rally and Pikes Peak Memorial Wall Dedication, Victor Celebrates the Arts and Cruise Above the Clouds, just to name a few highlights.
In addition, the Butte Theater will soon debut its two main summer shows, The Spoilers and Guys and Dolls. They will play regularly throughout the summer, following their kickoff around the Donkey Derby Days festival. The Butte is gaining distinction as one of the best venues in the Pikes Peak region for dramatic plays, musicals, melodramas and holiday performances. Meanwhile, the restored Gold Bar Room Theater of the Imperial Hotel, will do a number of nostalgic musical performances.“It is going to be a busy summer,” admitted White.
City officials also appear determined to assure that this active schedule of events and shows isn’t impeded by the construction efforts. So far, he says the contractors are keeping their word about closely communicating their activities with local businesses. Also, no work will occur from Fridays through Sundays. And while the gaming industry is still reeling from a flat market, Cripple Creek is experiencing an uptick in sales tax revenue, and visitation at local attractions and museums remains strong.“Our numbers are increasing,” said White, in discussing visitation at the Cripple Creek Heritage Center and the jail museum, the Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad and other attractions.
The town’s small but rising cadre of non-gaming shops have been doing better. And this summer and fall, current predictions indicate that Colorado should have a promising tourism season, statistics that could bode well for local shops and attractions.
However, these prospects, along with the success of Creek gaming activity, hinge on the mercy of Mother Nature. To date, it appears that more normal weather patterns are in play, with Teller County encountering its first spring and early summer without any fire bans. Also, this could mark the first July 4th in several years, when commercial fireworks celebrations light up the skies in southern Teller.