Cripple Creek and Teller County Celebrate the Lively History of Gambling- Bob Volpe and Rick Langenberg

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As towns sprouted in the 19th-century American West — outside Army forts, at river crossings along wagon trails, in mining districts and at railheads — some of the first structures built were recreational facilities. Recreation for the almost totally male population inevitably meant the triple-W vices of the frontier: whiskey-drinking, whoring and wagering.

Saloons, brothels and gambling halls would appear almost overnight. In the early camps, the structure might be only a lantern-lit, dirt-floored tent, the bar simply a board stretched between two whiskey barrels, the prostitution facility just a cot in a wagon bed for the use of a single female strumpet, and the gambling outfit only a rickety table, a few chairs and a greasy, dog-eared deck of cards. As the towns grew and prospered, these primitive facilities were replaced by one-story wooden buildings with false fronts to make them appear even larger. And if the community developed into a city, saloons were housed in imposing brick buildings with ornate bars, huge back-bar mirrors and brilliant chandeliers. Some brothels became elegantly furnished parlor houses with attractive ‘boarders’ managed by madams whose names were famous throughout the West. The best-known sporting men of the West presided over and patronized gambling houses that were often the most impressive and elaborately accoutered structures of the cities.

The popularity of gambling in the West can be attributed mostly to the fact that all who left the relative safety and comfort of the East to seek fame and fortune on the frontier were, in a sense, natural-born gamblers. In the early West, gambling was considered a profession, as legitimate a calling as the clergy, the law or medicine.

Leadville, 10,000 feet high in the mountains, blossomed almost overnight into the largest city in Colorado, and at one point its boosters attempted to wrest the state capital away from Denver. At its peak, gambling opportunities were afforded in more than 150 resorts ranging from small saloons to elaborate theaters and concert halls. Some of the better known were Tom Kemp’s Dance and Gambling Hall, which in 1879 featured vaudeville song-and-dance star Eddie Foy; the Texas House, where proprietors Bailey Youngston and ‘Con’ Featherly provided a dozen faro tables around the clock; and ‘Pop’ Wyman’s Great Saloon, in which a large sign over the bar read: ‘Don’t Shoot the Pianist — He’s Doing His Darndest.’

Most of the leading Western gamblers, including Ben Thompson, Bat Masterson, Luke Short and Doc Holliday, spent a good deal of time — and money — in Leadville. There is a story that after dropping more than $3,000 at faro one night there, the volatile Thompson in a fury turned over the table, jerked out his six-shooter and shot out all the lights, sending panic-stricken patrons scurrying for the exits. Holliday, suffering one of those streaks of bad luck and near poverty that plagued all gambling men, shot another sporting man named Billy Allen in Leadville in a dispute over a mere $5

As time went on and western towns became “more civilized” in the Christian-Judeo sense of the word, American laws fluctuated, making gambling illegal, much to the pleasure of the Puritan folk. As the years went on, legalized gambling gathered more support, and various states began accepting the development of state regulated casinos.
Cripple Creek gambling renaissance

Colorado gambling enthusiasts were greatly pleased in November of 1990 when limited stakes gaming was approved, following a state-wide campaign organized by business owners in Cripple Creek, Central City and Black Hawk. The campaign was modeled somewhat after limited stakes gaming in Deadwood, South Dakota, which became the first historic town to try to revitalize itself through Lady Luck. Voters supported the legislation to legalize casino gambling in Colorado by a hefty margin, despite strong opposition from the state’s governor, Roy Romer. In 1991 the gaming law was finalized. The guidelines came along with a limited stakes rule, holding all bets to a maximum of $5, and an ‘adult only’ law requiring Colorado casino gamblers to be at least 21 years of age.

The Colorado state government legalized casino gambling in three towns – Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek. Each of these towns are considered National Historic Districts. The purpose of this legislation was to preserve the history of these towns and to allow them to grown economically. Just prior to gaming, all three towns were dying and had many old structures that were ready to crumble.

Initially, the gaming industry in Cripple Creek exploded within the first six months, with the town nearly experiencing 35 casinos by the summer of 1991. Then, the town encountered much casino consolidations, a trend that still continues today. Over the last 25 years, the industry has encountered its ups and downs, but has provided a financial jackpot for local governments and nonprofits. The operations of the jail in Divide, for example, are largely funded by gaming impact monies.

In 2009, local and state gaming leaders upped the ante again by trying to increase betting limits to $100, adding new games and opening the door for 24/7 operations. This plan was approved by the voters.

In addition to the excitement of gambling, Cripple Creek offers fine dining, luxurious hotels and, most importantly, authentic slices of history. Casino revenue has helped preserve and restore the towns’ 19th-century charms, as well as more than 600 other historic properties across Colorado.

In Cripple Creek, after several years of declining gaming revenue, due to wildfires and flooding that made travel to the city difficult, the city made a pitch in 2015 to create an entertainment district, allowing casinos to serve alcohol 24 hours a day, instead of the long held tradition of stopping alcohol service at 2 a.m. This was approved by local and state authorities.

Nine casinos won approval to serve alcohol 24 hours a day, making Cripple Creek the first Colorado city to embrace around-the-clock liquor sales in gambling halls.

Gamblers from Denver, Colorado traveling toward Central City will find Black Hawk first, along the route, therefore making it more convenient to place their wagers at Colorado’s Black Hawk casinos. For this reason, Black Hawk has acquired the highest revenue in Colorado casino gambling, amongst the three towns. It also has built several Las Vegas-style casinos that have ignited much criticism from historic preservation leaders.

In an effort to increase revenue and compete with Black Hawk’s significant casino gambling business, Central City has financed an exit directly off Interstate-70 near Idaho Springs. The 4-lane Central City Parkway exit would give travelers substantially less driving time to reach Central City’s Colorado Casinos, while at the same time taking them off the path to Black Hack.

Another draw for gamblers to visit Colorado’s Central City Casinos is the true preservation of national history. Black Hawk’s Colorado Casinos, on the other hand, have opted for a more glamorous style, constructing their casinos with a glitzy style more akin to Las Vegas. Cripple Creek is considered to be the middle-man in regards to development, straying more from the historical aspect than Central City, yet avoiding the lights and flamboyance of Black Hawk casinos.

Lodging boom

As the popularity of gaming in Cripple Creek has rebounded with a vengeance, following some lean years, as a result of wildfires and flooding that made travel to the city difficult, four of the largest casinos in town are planning to build hotels in the next few years that could double the number of rooms available in the gambling town west of Colorado Springs as it celebrates the 25th anniversary of legalized gambling.

American Gaming Group LLC, Century Casinos Inc., Full House Resorts Inc. and Triple Crown Casinos Inc. all are planning to add rooms to help solve a lodging shortage in Cripple Creek, which has just 450 rooms for customers of its 12 casinos and other visitors to the historic mining and gambling mecca. Those rooms boast an occupancy rate of more than 90 percent – by comparison, Colorado Springs-area hotels averaged 64.8 percent last year – and sell out for special events that frequently lure thousands of visitors to the city, said Steve Kitzman, Cripple Creek’s director of marketing and special events.

This hotel renaissance got a boost last week, as the historic preservation commission approved design plans for the renovation and expansion of the Palace hotel, regarded as a revered historic gem, with strong ties to the town’s mining and tourist eras. .This project, proposed by Century, has gotten the attention of local business operators. It calls for a significant expansion of the Palace, while retaining its original historic look

City officials hope this project will serve as a catalyst for other lodging expansions in the effort to turn Cripple Creek form mostly a day trip area to a several-day destination hub. ‘This project is huge for Cripple Creek,” said City Administrator Ray DuBois, in a previous interview.

The planned hotels and expansion come as Cripple Creek’s gaming industry is on a roll – revenue collected by the city’s 12 casinos in the first half of the year was up 3.3 percent from the same period in 2015 to $63.6 million and increased last year by 3.7 percent from 2014 to $128 million, according to the Colorado Division of Gaming.

Last year’s annual increase was the first since 2012 and just the second since 2009. Casino profits in Cripple Creek last year were up 22.7 percent to nearly $6 million, just the second profitable year for the industry since 2008. The industry lost more than $60 million from 2008 to 2013.

More importantly, the amount of money wagered by gamblers at Cripple Creek casinos continues to rise.

According to the most recent figures released by the city, gamblers have wagered more than $30.4 million in 2016, compared to 2015, based on coin-in and table drop numbers that tracks their top-line sales volume. This represents a 2.4 percent increase from last year, which is impressive. Last year marked the first time that total coin-in figures increased significantly since 2004. And now, it appears that Cripple Creek will even top that number.

And from a competitive standpoint, Cripple Creek is making gains in its tough battle against the Goliath of Colorado gaming, Black Hawk. Cripple Creek casinos have increased their market share to 18 percent. That is their highest market share of the year, according to Finance Director Paul Harris.

“We have been up and down, and now it looks like we are doing much better again,” said City Councilman Chris Hazlett, a local business owner. “Things are definitely looking up.” Similar views are echoed by other local leaders and city officials.

With the town’s increase in market share, it is now receiving more tax and historic preservation monies, according to Hazlett. The councilman attributes the town’s rise in fortunes to the economy, the lack of road closures and their aggressive marketing efforts. The town has gotten much more energetic in organizing new weekend festivals, with a number of new events in 2016, such as last weekend’s fall festival.

And from a political standpoint, Cripple Creek doesn’t face that many hurdles. City and county officials won another legal victory in their battle against Black Hawk and Gilpin County in the way gaming revenues are allocated (see related story). The gaming town also hasn’t encountered any major competitive threats.

On the downside, the city still is dealing with a lean gaming lineup. Cripple Creek casinos now feature 3,682 betting devices and games, which is down nearly 30 percent from its peak period, when the Wildwood casino opened its doors in 2008. This decline in devices impacts the city, as gaming device fees are the primary source of revenue for the city’s operations.

But if the market continues to improve, Cripple Creek officials are hopeful that more games will occur. And in the last few years, the city has seen a resurgent tourist economy with more families traveling to the area. This boost is further fueled by a banner season for tourism in the Pikes Peak region.

All in all, as Cripple Creek gears up for the 25th anniversary of gaming, Teller County has many reasons to celebrate this industry that has changed the face of the area.