After years of slumping revenues, highway closures and a lingering, brutal recession, the economic tide is changing for Cripple Creek gambling and local tourism with business leaders preparing for a banner season.
And as the summer of 2016 kicks off this weekend with the first major special event, the Top of the World Rodeo, officials aren’t afraid to boast of what they see as a bustling and fun festival time, peppered with nearly 30 events and galas as Cripple Creek rivals many key destination areas in the Rocky Mountain region.
“I am optimistic about this year for gaming and tourism,” said Cripple Creek City Administrator Ray DuBois. “In fact, I am more than cautiously optimistic. I think it should be a really good summer. The economy is getting better. It (the national and state economic boom) is finally trickling up here to the Cripple Creek area.”
These sentiments are echoed by other officials and business operators in the community, who see 2016 as a pivotal season. Moreover, leaders cite an improving economy, limited Hwy. 24 closures and another key element lacking in previous years, investor confidence.
According to Finance Director Paul Harris, the town is on pace for a record-breaking year. For the first few months of 2016, the town’s assortment of a dozen casinos hit the charts for the highest amount of betting wagers in recent years. Local casinos have struck the jackpot for coin-in and table drop numbers that exceeded last year’s betting volume by $25 million in the first four months of 2016, according to Harris. “This is the most it (total betting wagers) has been in over 12 years,” said the finance director, when addressing the city council last week. “It still looks like we are on track for a potential record-breaking year.”
From the casino adjusted gross proceeds standpoint, local establishments have snagged nearly $2 million more in winnings compared to last year at this time, another impressive figure. In the first four months of 2016, the industry has generated nearly 4.5 percent more in winnings that it did last year.
And politically, the city and the local gaming industry scored several significant victories. Colorado lawmakers signed off on a bill that will permit state auditors to better scrutinize the historic preservation monies spent by all three Colorado gaming towns, including the arch rival of Cripple Creek, Black Hawk. This legislation, slated to be signed by the governor this week, emerged as a big victory for Cripple Creek, as town leaders and business operators have complained about an unfair playing field for at least five years. They have argued that they are facing almost a “David versus Goliath” battle in competing with Black Hawk due to their abuse of historic guidelines. Also, legislation was approved that would ban Colorado racetracks from implementing gaming devices at their venues. This could put a permanent halt to a competitive threat that casinos have faced for years.
In addition, business leaders say the town will reap the benefits of much improved flood mitigation work on Hwy. 24, courtesy of millions invested in federal and state monies. Following the Waldo Canyon fire of 2012, Cripple Creek gaming and Teller tourism took a serious beating due to frequent highway closures that occurred due to flash floods in the Ute Pass, as a direct result of this disaster. In essence, this cut the town off from Colorado Springs and major cities along the Front Range for extended periods.
But last summer, the state was able to turn the corner in addressing this situation, with hardly any major road closures reported in the region. And this year, highway department officials have announced much more flexible policies regarding Hwy. 24 closures
Also, last year the Bronco Billy’s casino, and its associated properties, was sold to a Las Vegas group, Full House Resorts, for $30 million. This sale, along with a huge expansion project undertaken by Billy’s, a new major convenience store and gas station hub done by the Wildwood casino and a new auto repair shop completed off Masonic and other developments, has given the town a bout of new confidence.
“This shows confidence in the community from outside investors,” said DuBois.
He expects this trend to continue this year. Plans are progressing for restoring and expanding the old Palace Hotel, a historic mainstay since the 1890s. Last week, the owners of the property, Century Casinos, scaled a key regulatory hurdle and received the okay for constructing a new alleyway, which will permit them to go ahead with plans for reviving the Palace Hotel. The revived Palace is expected to have 30 rooms, a retail area and possibly a restaurant.
“The Palace project is huge for Cripple Creek,” said the city administrator. Work on the new alleyway is slated for this year, with the prospects of the hotel becoming a reality in 2017 (see related story).
Summer of Fun Rekindled
And for the first time in 10 years, the town is wagering a big gamble on special events and festivals, in an effort to bring more people to town. Cripple Creek and the southern Teller area has a hefty lineup of nearly 30 events planned for this year, including several new festivals such as the Cripple Creek Telsa Rally, the 25th Anniversary of Gaming, the Fall Festival, the Citywide Scavenger Hunt, and the Colorado Craft Distillery Tasting. The lineup has drawn comparisons with Deadwood, South Dakota, regarded as the granddaddy of limited stakes gaming, and the town’s earlier “Summer of Fun” festival explosion (see related story).
According to DuBois, the town has invested considerable more money into marketing and special events due to popular demand. “We have three new full-time employees in this department,” related DuBois. “I hope people will see that we are making a big investment towards marketing and special events.” Cripple Creek also has continued a joint $240,000 television advertising campaign with local casinos.
Besides a good year for gaming, officials are optimistic about tourism and overall visitation in Cripple Creek and Victor. The numbers recorded at the Cripple Creek Heritage Center, the train car visitor center and the jailhouse museum, along with other attractions, has been pretty steady the last two years. And even though the gaming industry has slumped some in recent years, statistics indicate that the southern Teller region has featured an increasing amount of visitors.
And luckily for local gamblers and tourists, visitors won’t encounter too many obstacles from temporary road or lane closures due to construction work this summer. Cripple Creek is planning a huge infrastructure enhancement project along Teller One, with considerable trail and sidewalk improvements. But this work won’t occur until next year.
Lean number of betting devices
But the town government still has a few obstacles to contend with this summer. The current betting device and gaming lineup at local casinos is still quite low, with little indication that it will change much this year. According to Harris, the town has experienced a nearly 30 percent decline from its betting device peak in the summer of 2008, when the town boasted of 5,170 betting options and games. “That’s not a good trend,” admitted Harris.
Based on the latest count tabulated by the city, the local gaming industry now operates with 3,682 betting devices and table games. It also sports 12 licensed casinos, operated by six companies or corporations, according to statistics.
That’s a far cry from 24 years ago during the first summer of limited stakes gaming when the town nearly featured 35 individual casinos. However, the industry now is much more stable than earlier years, when the town encountered a boom-bust craze and experienced a flurry of closures and casino consolidations. “We are seeing smaller, steadier growth,” said DuBois.
Still, the low amount of betting devices makes city officials extremely nervous. Betting device fees are the primary vehicle for funding the city government.
The city is hoping to gain a little financial breathing room by pushing for a 6 percent lodging tax on rooms paid for by overnight guests. This is one of two Cripple Creek issues that will appear on the local ballot on Nov. 8. If the lodging levy is approved by the citizens of Cripple Creek, the city realistically could see an additional $400,000 in annual revenue.