by Rick Langenberg:
What more can go wrong for the city of Cripple Creek and its 22-plus-year gambling industry?
Creek gaming and the entire town is confronting a continual economic slump, accentuated by Hwy. 24 closings; the threat of big competition if Colorado voters pass a ballot issue allowing for horse racetrack slots and table games; and another legal assault by Gilpin County in their persistent effort to snag more tax monies from Cripple Creek and Teller County. “It’s tough to deal with three major things like this at one time,” said Cripple Creek Finance Director Paul Harris, who is preparing an extremely lean budget for next year, comparable to 2001 spending levels.
The local gaming industry still continues its economic woes. According to the most recent recording period, Cripple Creek casinos experienced a 7.2 percent decline in overall bets wagered, compared to the same month last year. Cripple Creek casinos’ coin-in and table drop numbers are down $73 million or 6.5 percent from 2013 at this time, according to city figures. What is equally troubling is that 2013 itself was down nearly 5 percent from the previous year. So in the last year and a half, gaming bets have dropped by more than 10 percent.
The closures of Hwy. 24 have had a big impact on this downward trend. For example in July, the main highway was shut down at least six times during prime periods, according to Harris. But local gaming operators and city leaders don’t have too much time to worry about gambling statistics as they are facing a political battle for survival. At their next meeting, the Cripple Creek City Council is expected to pass a resolution against Amendment 68. This proposition, which will be voted on during the November election statewide, would allow for an explosion of video slots and tables games at three horse racetrack venues in Colorado, including ones in Arapahoe, Pueblo and Mesa counties.“That is a very big concern,” said City Administrator Ray White. “This type of outside money is detrimental to a lot of areas in Colorado. This would really hurt us.” He is referring to a campaign organized by Mile High USA, Inc., a subsidiary of the Twin River Casino in Lincoln, Rhode Island. The pro-68 horse racetrack group is trying to lure support under the premise of offering needed funds for K-12 education, and is calling itself “Coloradoans for Better Schools.”
Teller County Commissioner Marc Dettenrieder agrees with White and sees the ballot proposition as a sneaky way to bypass the Colorado constitution.
Oddly enough, city and county leaders may find themselves on the same side as their arch rivals: Black Hawk and Gilpin County, where the state’s largest casinos are located. The Ameristar resort and other big casinos in Black Hawk could emerge as the biggest losers, as one of the prime existing horse racetracks is located in nearby Arapahoe County.
Key casinos operators in Black Hawk are heading most of the opposition against Amendment 68, with a group called “Don’t Turn Racetracks Into Casinos.” They accuse the Amendment 68 proponents of trying to turn a small horse track near Aurora “into a giant Las Vegas style casino,” and have already generated an impressive campaign chest of more than $9 million. The anti-68 proponents also stress that a similar measure was voted down by Colorado voters in 2003 by a 4-1 margin. The forthcoming anti-68 resolution is expected to be signed by the city councils of Cripple Creek, Black Hawk and Central City. The Colorado Gaming Association has also expressed opposition against the measure. In addition, city officials from the gaming towns are trying to enlist support in their anti-Amendment 68 campaign from the Colorado Municipal League.
But while local officials may join forces with Black Hawk and Gilpin County in the fight against Amendment 68, no love is lost between Teller and Gilpin leaders. Both Cripple Creek and Teller officials learned recently that Gilpin is not throwing in the towel in its effort to change the gaming revenue distribution system in a way that would result in possibly a $2.5 million annual loss in local tax funds for the governments of Cripple Creek and Teller County combined. Gilpin officials are heading back to the District Court in Denver to further appeal this case.
White said the city’s attorneys are working on defending their interests. He expressed confidence that both Cripple Creek and Teller County would prevail again, but admitted this effort will consume much time and money. Gilpin’s bid to change this revenue distribution system has already been rebuffed by the courts, the gaming division staff and gaming commissioners, and has gotten a cold response by many state legislators. However, Gilpin officials believe they still have not exhausted their appeal rights.