Cripple Creek Gaming and Local Tourism Gearing Up for a Banner Year

~ by Rick Langenberg ~

Cover photo by Cindy Valade

With summer kicking into full-gear, the Cripple Creek gaming industry and local attractions are poised for a prosperous, banner season.

After years of slumping revenues and a lingering, brutal recession, the tide has definitely changed for the southern Teller community, with more betting activity at casinos and a steady hike in visitors, along with more events locally and across the region.

The only bumps in the road could deal with temporary highway closures this summer and fall, courtesy of a major paving project along Hwy. 67 between Divide and Cripple Creek and extensive infrastructure development along Teller One, just outside of town. But with a little luck, these projects will only offer minor delays, with no construction projected during the weekends.

“I think it will be a really good year,” said City Administrator Ray DuBois. “It appears that more people are definitely coming to Cripple Creek.”

This bullish statement has been echoed by community and business leaders across Cripple Creek and Teller County. In several recent economic forums, Cripple Creek officials have expressed much optimism about the forthcoming year, both from a gaming and tourism standpoint.  “Things are going pretty well,” said Finance Director Paul Harris in a council meeting last month, in discussing gaming trends. “We have a good outlook,” added Steve Kitzman, marketing and special events director.

And outside of Cripple Creek, leaders are predicting a big year for visitation across the region. Debbie Miller, the president of the Woodland Park Chamber of Commerce, has expressed much optimism about tourism prospects this year.

Unlike past seasons, the Teller and Ute Pass region don’t appeared hampered by potential floods along the Hwy. 24 thoroughfares. And with the recent moisture, the threat of significant wildfires has decreased significantly

From a visitation standpoint, Cripple Creek is off to a solid bustling start. Visitation at the town’s jail museum has increased by 32 percent for the first few months of 2017, while the Heritage Center has experienced a hike of 505 visitors, equivalent to 4 percent.  These are impressive statistics due to the fact that these attractions recorded bustling figures in 2016. In fact for the last few years, the town’s non-gaming attractions have fared quite well.

As for gaming, the town’s assortment of a dozen licensed casinos have hit the jackpot for an increase of $14.2 million in overall betting action (referred to as coin-in numbers) through the first four months of 2017, according to city officials. In addition, casinos are wagering a 2.8 percent hike in adjusted gross proceeds, compared to last year at this time.

If current trends continue, the Cripple Creek gaming community could record its third consecutive winning season for overall betting volume numbers. Plus, local casinos have gained market share in the Colorado market, closing the gap slightly against their main rival, Black Hawk. Most gaming operators are cautiously optimistic about the summer of 2017, based on the start of the season. Some operators are eying plans for additional lodging projects, but no construction on these ventures is expected for 2017.  

“We are seeing a lot of interest in properties up here, but we don’t expect to have any new hotel projects breaking ground this year,” predicted DuBois.

Unfortunately, the town still has a long way to go to recover from previous slumps, attributed to a smoking ban, the Great Recession of 2008 and natural disasters. For a number of years, the gaming industry experienced continual downward cycles in overall betting action.    

Great Place for Events

And as the summer of 2017 kicked off last 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 and southern Teller rivals many key destination areas in the Rocky Mountain region. Once again, the town is wagering many bets on special events, and is promoting its first ever music festival in July.

The only real casualty on the special event front dealt with the cancellation of the Mine to Mine running competition due to conflicts with the town’s fall festival.

“We really want to do more special events,” said DuBois. He cited the importance of having regular events, even if they aren’t as grandiose as past festivals.

The next big event is Donkey Derby Days in late June, considered one of its signature festivals. The event is sponsored by the Two Mile High Club, which cares for the herd that roams throughout town during the summer    

Derby Days could even take on more prominence this year, as the town’s donkey herd had its first baby male donkey in more than 20 years. The donkeys are still regarded as one of the town’s prime attractions.     

Besides special events, DuBois is optimistic that the town is becoming more diversified. Last week , the city council approved the final reading of a new law making it legal to ride all-terrain vehicles (ATVs)throughout the city, on a 24/7 basis with set rules. This is part of a move to make Cripple Creek more of a recreational hub.

In addition, major trail and sidewalk enhancement work will soon occur off Teller One, and the town is constructing a new adventure park, with plans for an 18-hole disc golf course. Altogether, the city is spending more than $3 million in projects in 2017 and for future years, with the vast majority of this money coming from grants.

And politically, the city and the local gaming industry have scored several steady victories. Plans are moving ahead for a state audit of historic preservation monies for the three Colorado gaming towns.  This audit could help the city and local casinos in dealing with what some experts say is an unfair playing field, with Black Hawk developing Las Vegas-style casinos that clash with the intent of the original gambling law and making a mockery of historic guidelines.

Also, the local industry survived attempts to alter the rules for their entertainment district in the last legislative session (see related story).  Currently, Cripple Creek is the only gaming town that offers 24/7 cocktail service on a district-wide basis.  


A Lean Gaming Lineup

But the news is not all good for Cripple Creek.

The town government still has a few mighty financial obstacles to contend with that could impact future programs. 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 3,598 betting devices and table games, a figure that has plunged to an all-time low. This even represents a 2.3 percent decrease from last year at this time   

That’s a far cry from 25 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, in a previous interview.

Still, the low amount of betting devices makes city officials extremely nervous.  Betting device fees are the primary vehicle for funding the city government.

And during a meeting last week, Harris indicated that this number of betting devices could even get leaner. Local casinos are featuring a smaller number of games and betting options, as owners/operators are wagering more bets into additional perks, such as lodging rooms and other non-gaming enticements

As a result, the city hopes to get a lodging tax approved by the voters in November to generate needed revenue. But this type of levy hasn’t had much success in previous elections.