Industry Survives Constant Threats
by Rick Langenberg:
It may not go down as the most festive birthday bash for Cripple Creek and Teller County, but the arrival of ringing slots and legal games of chance in the historic town still ranks as a wild success story.
This week, the local gambling industry celebrates 23 years of legal wagering in the Creek, amid some of the community’s more difficult economic challenges. Gaming numbers continue to slump and gambling device and game totals are down considerably, almost mimicking 2001 figures. The frequent Hwy. 24 closures, combined with the downtown construction morass, have served as the main culprits. In addition, the town is confronting a state ballot proposition, calling for the possibility of full-scale racetrack casinos in three venues, including Pueblo and Aurora.
But economic and political challenges are nothing new for the Cripple Creek gambling industry and for the county and city, which has taken a staunch, “failure is not an option,” survivor attitude in grappling with these constant threats. Here are just a few of the main challenges and obstacles Cripple Creek gambling has overcome over the last 23 years that often highlighted the pages of The Mountain Jackpot:
Boom and Bust. Buoyed by a new industry, and comparisons drawn to the district’s previous gold rush fervor, Cripple Creek gambling started out with a bang. Although only a small handful of casinos opened their doors on the historic kick-off day, Oct. 1, 1991, this gambling jackpot exploded with the town bustling with close to 35 casinos and gaming halls by the end of the summer of 1992. Part of this boom was associated with the novelty of limited stakes gambling in historic towns, a model first adopted by Deadwood, South Dakota. Not surprisingly, the market couldn’t sustain this many properties, and as result, a big casino shake-out occurred with the big taking over the small. Still, local optimism remained quite strong, and the city government expanded by historic standards and new zoning regulations were adopted in record speed. With this boom, the county was forced to build a new jailhouse and close down its quaint and hearty Cripple Creek overnight Hilton that couldn’t accommodate more than 15 nightly inmates.
Transportation woes. Transportation has always been a struggle in the gaming community, with some civic leaders seeking bold ideas, such as re-launching the Short Line Railroad up Gold Camp Road. The ride to Cripple Creek got extremely bumpy when the old tunnel on Hwy. 67 nearly collapsed in the early 1990s, forcing the state to shut down the highway for an extended period. This forced alternative travel via Teller One and the often dusty Four Mile county road. But surprisingly, most casino operators didn’t complain too much and the state rerouted Hwy. 67 and the associated trail system around the old tunnel in amazing speed.
Shortly after gambling began, former Mayor Henry “June” Hack tried hard to lobby for the revamping the old historic train route up Gold Camp Road, but encountered huge opposition from many Colorado Springs residents. Just as this ambitious venture appeared to become a reality in the mid-1990s, with Swiss railroad experts prepared to begin work, the train project completely de-railed.
Historic Preservation and Political Upheaval. Historic and political fights have emerged as a key fabric of Cripple Creek gambling. From near fist fights at public meetings over 200 foot-tall casino flagpole displays, to huge Las Vegas-style, hotel projects that never materialized, to new elaborate structures that started getting built and went belly up, creating dangerous building sites, to frequent visits by representatives of the state historical society, Cripple Creek has encountered quite a challenge in ushering in the gambling industry while maintaining its historic 1890s look. And over the years, the city government has endured a hefty lineup of probably 20-plus planners, marketing directors/consultants and historic preservation leaders. The latest facelift for Bennett Avenue marks the latest significant change for the community. Prior to this work, the town tried to diversify its economic cards through heritage tourism, a movement capped by the construction and opening of the Cripple Creek Heritage Center, just outside town.
Gambling fever. Cripple Creek has been a stern survivor of many threats from other Colorado towns, including Manitou Springs, Pueblo and Trinidad, who sought to replicate the town’s gambling success. At one point, as many as 60 towns in Colorado tried to increase their economic odds through limited stakes gambling. But in virtually every case, Colorado voters, or local residents in the communities impacted, said “no thanks.” As part of this gambling expansion movement, Cripple Creek has continued to fight competition from video lottery terminals, a fancy word for gaming slots, initially proposed at dog and horse tracks in nearby locales. This earlier ballot plan was convincingly defeated in 2003, but a new threat is on the horizon for full blown horse racetrack casinos. In addition, the industry has faced more competition in nearby areas and across the country, with gambling options now available in practically every state.
Coupled with these threats, the local gaming industry has constantly dealt with a less than friendly attitude by most Colorado governors, and lawmakers who aren’t keen on the industry. The city and county government, the local gaming industry and Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mining Company have all hired lobbyists to keep an eye on the antics of state lawmakers.
Smoking and the Great Recession. One of the biggest economic blows dealt with the implementation of a state smoking ban, along with a lingering recession, beginning in 2008. These trends are bullets the industry is still trying to dodge. The smoking ban was hard for local casinos to avoid, although a few establishments tried to put up quite a fight in retaining parts of their facilities as cigar bars. But they couldn’t sway the head county judge, despite convincing arguments. The great recession, meanwhile, marked the first time that national economic trends impacted the gambling industry in recent decades.
Special Events Marketing and Entertainment. A great byproduct of Creek gambling has been a festive town, with unique special events and live theater. Although marketing and promotions has emerged as a lightning rod issue over the years, with a variety of different plans, the town now boasts of many great events, such as the Ice Festival, Donkey Derby Days, the Salute to American Veterans Rally, the Independence-Day fireworks celebration, Gold Rush Days, Aspen Tours and the new Mine to Mine Challenge. And the Butte Theater has gained a niche as one of best venues for live theatrical entertainment in the Pikes Peak region. The Thin Air Theatre Company boasts a rich variety of shows, including musicals, melodramas, comedies, modern dramas and Christmas performances, unrivaled in any mountain community.
Floods, Fires, Natural disasters and Downtown Construction. These are the latest threats facing Cripple Creek gambling, as it gears up for its 23rd annual bash. Just as local gaming appeared poised for a comeback about two years ago, the region got hit with the Waldo Canyon fire that paralyzed travel to Cripple Creek along the main highway from Colorado Springs. This fire consequently caused a huge burn scar that produced perfect conditions for flash floods during the following summer. This has become an absolute menace for the gaming community, but the situation will improve next year with better detection and storm monitoring equipment, according to highway officials.
Then, the town government this summer embarked on a $4.5 million facelift of the downtown, creating access problems for local casinos and businesses. This project was a byproduct of $2.6 million the city received from the state for taking over the main thoroughfare in town. City officials promise that the construction morass is nearing a conclusion and the final product will generate a more pedestrian-friendly revamp and a more dynamic downtown.
Time will tell whether the latest facelift gamble is worth the price. But the prevailing characteristic of Cripple Creek, evident since the late 1890s gold rush and a key element of the overall limited stakes gambling movement, is its survivor mentality. That trait will remain.