Cripple Creek seeking state intervention in preservation war

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Cripple Creek seeking state intervention in preservation war Rick Langenberg

The city of Cripple Creek has raised the stakes in its ongoing war with Black Hawk over the use of preservation monies and in establishing a fair gambling playing field.

The city has submitted an official request to the state’s Legislative Audit Committee that asks for a complete review of how the three gaming communities use their annual allotment of historic preservation dollars. In some ways, the request parallels a legislative effort last year that sought more guidelines over how these monies should be spent in the three gambling towns—Cripple Creek, Black Hawk and Central City.

Only now, the request has gotten a lot more serious, and ultimately, could lead to official action by the state auditor’s office. The eight-person legislative committee, consisting of four Republicans and four Democrats, reviews and releases state audit reports and recommends special studies, according to its website.

“We are not pointing any fingers,” said Cripple Creek City Administrator Ray DuBois, who stressed that the requested audit would encompass all three gambling towns and not just one community. “We feel we have spent our monies appropriately and have stayed with the intent of what the voters approved in 1990. We are the model gaming community,” added DuBois, who believes Cripple Creek would receive top marks by auditors in how it spends its historic monies.

Although no towns are being mentioned in the city’s letter, a comprehensive state audit clearly could target Black Hawk, which has been under fire for some time over how it spends its historic preservation monies. According to many reports, Black Hawk has clearly stepped over the lines in its allocation of these dollars for such purposes as enhancing the properties of key elected leaders, financing major infrastructure improvements and constructing new modern facilities.

Under the current revenue formula approved by state lawmakers, Black Hawk receives the lion’s share of these preservation dollars dispersed to the gambling towns because its casinos garner most of the proceeds. During the heyday of gambling, Black Hawk received more than $4 million annually in preservation monies. According to the original gambling amendment, 28 percent of the gaming tax revenues was earmarked for historic preservation, with 80 percent given to the state historic fund for statewide grants and 20 percent given to the three towns based on the proportion of revenues each generates.

An Historic Mockery

Since the arrival of the 33-story, nearly 600-room Ameristar Casino Resort in Black Hawk in 2009, critics have shaken their head and cried foul, saying this development makes a mockery of historic preservation guidelines, a key component of the original gambling law. This project was dubbed as the “game changer” for Colorado limited stakes gaming and clearly propelled Black Hawk into the Goliath status of gambling with a Las Vegas-style property.

But Cripple Creek, dubbed as “David” in the “David versus Goliath” battle for gaming survival, has been a formidable legal opponent. Besides fighting Black Hawk in the historic preservation arena, the city has opposed efforts by Black Hawk and Gilpin County to snag more of the gambling tax money. Plus, Creek officials have previously raised many question marks regarding the Ameristar project and other gambling pursuits by Black Hawk.

“We are just asking for a level playing field,” said Cripple Creek Finance Director Paul Harris, who has played an instrumental role in the latest preservation inquiry. He noted that if the state auditor’s office gives the okay for more leeway in the use of these dollars, then Cripple Creek will make major changes in how it allocates these monies.

According to elected leaders of Cripple Creek, which has had a stormy relationship with Black Hawk over the last five years, the city has received strong support for its pro-historic preservation stand from key state legislators and officials.

The pro-preservation legislation it considered last year never got formally introduced. But according to sources, the idea of a state audit for the use of preservation dollars in all three towns has gained much support by key lawmakers.

In addition, Black Hawk has lost one of its key legislative allies, with the defeat of State Senator Jeanne Nicholson last November. Nicholson was a big advocate of a plan to give Black Hawk and Gilpin County more tax revenue.

For years, Black Hawk has been targeted by a few watchdog organizations and once was eyed by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. But CBI officials determined that “no “blatant criminal violations” occurred.

The bureau, though, released some disturbing findings, such as the allotment of more than $1.5 million in historic grants to enhance the properties of several elected leaders, including that of the mayor, within a five year period. In addition, former Senator Sally Hopper, who once represented Black Hawk and crafted the original gambling legislation, described the post-Ameristar Black Hawk look as “probably the most ruined town” when it came to historic preservation.