Move over Deadwood with your historic gun fights and get ready for some serious coffin race competition, there Manitou Springs, as the Teller gaming town is gearing up for a major tourist offensive.
For the first time in at least five years, the city of Cripple Creek is preparing for a big marketing push by highlighting its past and by gambling with an ace card it rarely has played in recent years: special events and heritage tourism.
Next year, in a movement that rivals its old “Summer of Fun” days of a decade ago, Cripple Creek plans to sport at least four new major events and festivals as it tries to model itself more after Deadwood, South Dakota, the first main historic mining town that introduced limited stakes gaming to its itinerary. Deadwood is regarded by most experts as probably the most successful model for combining gaming with historic tourism.
And Cripple Creek is seriously considering waving the Deadwood banner, with the intent of bringing more visitors to town and keeping them coming back. The plan is being fueled by a potential lineup of new events, including a gravity race and soap box derby, a blues, brews and barbecue fest, a city-wide scavenger hunt, a tri-county chili cook-off, a fall, “Big Aspen Happ’nin” festival and a Colorado craft distillery tour. In addition, plans are being explored for a major lumberjack competition, and no letup will occur with its current festivals, such as Donkey Derby Days, the Salute to American Veterans Rally and Cruise Above the Clouds.
Ultimately, the goal is to keep the Cripple legacy alive and recapture its niche as the top gaming and historic mining community in the state, according to marketing officials.
“Our story is more compelling (than that of Deadwood),” said Cripple Creek Marketing and Special Events Director Steve Kitzman, when addressing the city council and speaking before a large crowd of gaming officials during a budget hearing last week. “We can be there.”
Kitzman proposed linking the gaming and historic elements of the Cripple Creek experience into more of combined package from what has occurred in the past. “Let’s embrace who we are,” said Kitzman, who noted that gambling has always been part of the town’s history, and wasn’t just a new addition that began in the early 1990s. He has touted a familiar message that ran in a recent advertisement in The Mountain Jackpot and other publications, with the theme of “Truer, Grittier and Wilder,” and highlighted by historic images of a scene of 1890s downtown Cripple Creek filled with people.
Granted, Cripple Creek doesn’t have an HBO television series that touts its rich mining past, or the benefits of having the renowned murder of outlaw Wild Bill Hickok in its backyard.
But unlike its fellow gaming competitions in Colorado, Kitzman stated that Cripple Creek has the physical attributes to back up its historic roots. “We have not lost our Mojo,” said Kitzman. He believes that Black Hawk has sold out, and basically is trying to become a mini-Las Vegas, while Central City has completely lost its vitality. “Our strength is our heritage,” said Kitzman.
He also introduced a handful of new possible attraction ideas, such as hosting jeep and ATV tours, an outdoor sledding, tubing hill, an alpine slide, a zip line adventure and a mountain coaster, just to name a few.
The new marketing chief, who now has a completely new staff, got a fairly warm reception with his plan for next year. In fact, several gaming operators lauded the new ideas and encouraged the city staff to further examine how much Deadwood spends on its promotional efforts. They indicated the city may be trying to be too cheap with its promotional expenditures.
The casino operators mainly want the city to continue the current joint $240,000 television campaign. City officials have agreed to continue the program, with a few changes in production efforts.
Larry Hill, the chief executive officer for the Triple Crown Casinos, credited this campaign for the industry’s upsurge in the last year. “I think the television commercials are a major part of the campaign,” said Hill.
He also stated that if the casinos prosper, then that means more money for the city to do necessary infrastructure and community enhancements. These latter elements have emerged as some of the complaints by visitors.
The city council also is ready to jump on board with the new pro-tourism marketing push. “A good marketing plan is going to make us stronger,” said Councilman Milford Ashworth, who cites better gaming numbers as a real plus for Cripple Creek. “We definitely need more events up here,” said Councilman Chris Hazlett.
The council initially agreed to allocate another $30,000 into the program by transferring more funds from its historic preservation budget.
And based on some of the new proposed festivals, the city may be poised to make a hefty investment into promotional expenses for 2016. According to preliminary figures, the city wants to spend more than $720,000 into marketing and special events for next year, in what is being touted as an overall tourism account. This amount also includes the city’s costs for an annual joint television advertising campaign with the local casinos.
Kitzman recommended that the city realistically try to do four more major events in 2016, and wants to have a public workshop to finalize the details. As for other strategy changes, his plan proposes much more in-house work on video and Internet production and efforts to target more visitors from Douglas County and the south part of Denver.
Overcoming Past Hurdles
However, an important part of the new focus deals with establishing more community unity, an obstacle the town has confronted since slots started ringing in downtown Cripple Creek. Kitzman cited in-fighting as one of the biggest problems Cripple Creek faces, even though various factions support the same end-goal: to get more people into town.
The new marketing director wants to have more open-ended town hall meetings to bridge past communication woes. Again, he cited the Deadwood model, in conceding that they have plenty of political battles in the South Dakota town, but convey the same end-message. “At the end of the day, they speak the same language,” said Kitzman.
“It means working together,” said Mayor Pro Tem Steve Zoellner, who is a big proponent of pursuing the Deadwood model. He conducted a fact-finding tour there a number of years ago and was quite impressed with what he observed.
As for other hurdles, Kitzman cited problems with an absentee commercial property owner, who controls a slew of prime former and vacant casino buildings on the 400 block of town at the entrance to the main street corridor. Several of these have undergone much decay and have given the city a black eye.
He is urging the city to conduct more negotiations with the property owner and their representatives. “It is crippling the city,” said Kitzman.
Other weaknesses with the Cripple Creek experience deal with limited quality hotel rooms and a lack of retail and family activities, according to the marketing chief.
Kitzman cited Internet surveys indicating that many visitors enjoyed their experience in Cripple Creek, but wanted more. “Everyone sees what we could be,” said the marketing director, in mentioning a point that has been stressed by many community leaders.