Phase one slated for construction this summer
~ by Rick Langenberg ~
Welcome to Las Vegas, Cripple Creek-style.
In a development that many economic experts believe will transform the Teller gaming town into a major tourist and gambling destination, the Cripple Creek City Council last week signaled the green light for the largest casino hotel and mini-resort bid proposed since slots started ringing down Bennett Avenue.
Following a nearly five-hour hearing, capped by a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 people, the elected leaders by a 4-0 tally approved a series of decisions that give Full House Resorts, the owners of Bronco Billy’s, the okay to build a six-story, nearly 200-room hotel, featuring a number of elaborate amenities, such as a fitness/spa hub and considerable meeting and entertainment spots, along with a mega parking garage, pedestrian crossways and surface lots. In addition, they became the first gaming property permitted to dramatically expand by receiving designation as a project of special merit, giving them a certain amount of leeway in having to abide by all historic preservation guidelines, such as saving old buildings. Altogether, the project will encompass more than 300,000 square feet of new construction.
Moreover, Billy’s also obtained a significant roadway vacation with the future shutdown of a main section of Second Street.
The council pretty much followed the recommendations of their staff, which approved the Billy’s hotel and casino redevelopment project with a laundry list of nearly 20 conditions.
The only council person that didn’t participate in the proceedings was Melissa Trenary, who was forced to recuse herself, at the request of the Billy’s legal counsel. Trenary is employed by a casino that filed objections to the project. Concerns also arose over social media posts the council member made pertaining to complaints about a demolition of a residential structure near the project area.
Trenary didn’t object to the recusal request and left the meeting room.
And Mayor Pro Tem Chris Hazlett, with the assistance of the city’s IT department, participated in the hearing electronically from Vietnam.
The debate over the Billy’s project was lively but kept under control. Luckily, it never reached the heated level of previous hotel and preservation battles in the early years of gaming that nearly turned into fistfights; and for that matter, the hearing never stooped to the political ugliness that occurs these days down the hill in Woodland Park.
In fact, besides Hazlett, few council members made any concluding remarks following hours of testimony. Hazlett lauded the arguments made by both supporters and opponents of the project. Overall, he and other council members labeled the project as a good fit for Cripple Creek, which has strived to expand from its image as a day-time gaming-only town.
The council’s decision was fueled by an outpouring of support for the project from many residents, business owners and old-timers, including the pre-gaming co-operator of the Palace Hotel and by one of the main campaign organizers of the push for limited stakes gaming. Testimony also was given by Cripple Creek’s first official planning director in 1990.
Supporters mainly cited the economic benefits and contended that Cripple Creek is approaching a new era and needs to take advantage of this potential opportunity with a $100 million-plus development project.
“We are at a crossroads,” said veteran resident Ray Drake, one of the main pioneers in the push for legal gaming in Cripple Creek. “This is a nice compromise.”
Drake was referring to some of the more ambitious casino/resort-like developments in Black Hawk that have changed the landscape of Colorado gaming.
Opponents, including several well-known casino operators, complained that the city is trashing its own historic preservation guidelines to make room for a mega-development that resembles the monstrous, projects in Black Hawk that some say trounce the community’s historic character.
They maintained they aren’t against growth, but favor not giving certain businesses an unprecedented advantage and see the project leading to casino shutdowns.
“If you build it, that does not necessarily mean they will come,” blasted Eric Rose, general manager of Century Casino. “We have been down this road before.”
Not a replica of historic buildings
In his staff report, Bill Gray, the city’s community, and development director stressed that the proposed project is of a different caliber than what the town has dealt with in the past in the downtown with the restoration of historic buildings. “That does not mean you have to love this (new hotel) building,” said Gray. “It is not perfect….New buildings should be compatible. They should not be (historic) replicas,” said the community development director.
He contended that the applicant made great strides to make their new hotel and parking garage blend well with the historic flavor of the downtown. They also added a few more conditions of approval regarding the project design from the Carr Avenue side and required the developers to increase the pedestrian access ways between Carr and Bennett.
The plan also paves the way for the demolition of three buildings, one which was dismantled last week, and the removal of an outdoor amphitheater. Out of these, the only significant historic building consists of a maintenance facility structure, constructed between 1901-1903. With the taking down of this building, Billy’s would be required to build a similar structure to serve as a retail outlet.
“This is a good tradeoff,” said Gray.
David Barber, an architect for the project, who actually served the Cripple Creek’s first planning director, echoed similar sentiments. He believes the project will help galvanize the business district. “It brings a lot of benefits to the community,” said Barber.
Dan Lee, the chief executive officer of Full House Resorts, estimated that the project would generate a minimum of $1.8 million a year in additional revenue for the city and $600,000 in property taxes. Moreover, he contended that their proposal would help curb the town’s stigma of only serving as a day-trip destination and one that only catered to serious gamblers. “We hope to change that,” said Lee, who received much support during his presentation. “We sell adrenaline. It’s a whole new market,” he added in describing the excitement the project would bring to the area. He also touted the addition of many jobs to the community.
With their hotel and its spree of amenities, Lee said Bronco Billy’s hopes to do its part in catering more to recreational gamblers and even visitors who don’t play games of chance. Lee noted that trends in Las Vegas favor players who partake in gambling, along with other forms of entertainment. He cited the lack of visitors as Cripple Creek’s main Achilles Heel.
“They are so busy fighting with each other,” said Lee, inciting his perception of the battle among many gaming operators.
During public comment, many residents touted the plan as a good deal for Cripple Creek. In addition, they cited Bronco Billy’s community support in the past.
“I believe this is an opportunity for Cripple Creek,” said Maurice Woods, Jr., a local business owner, with strong ties to the community. “There has to be a certain amount of change. Cripple Creek would benefit from this project.”
And like many supporters, Woods sees the future development as allowing Cripple Creek to help reach its goal of becoming more of a destination area.
“Bronco Billy’s has always been a good steward,” said Martin Lays, the original co-operator of the Palace Hotel and casino. “This would bring a positive change. It is a huge investment.”
In a letter read to the council, Marc Murphy, the general manager of Bronco Billy’s, who has been involved since the first day of gaming in Oct. 1991, cited the project a rare opportunity that would allow Cripple Creek to enter a new era of economic prosperity.
These comments echoed most of the pro-hotel comments delivered at last week’s hearing. Nearly 15 people spoke in favor of the project.
Not so Fast
However, although they didn’t have as many representatives, the council chambers featured many opponents of the project at last week’s hearing. Their main group was represented by Ryan Klein, an attorney with Sherman&Howard in Colorado Springs.
Klein argued that the city was providing Bronco Billy’s a with a $2.7 to $3 million free land give-away by vacating a prime area of Second Street, based on assessment figures they have tabulated. And with a town government struggling financially, he questioned the logic and legality behind this move. “We are starting down a slippery slope,” said Klein.
He reiterated that the opponents of the project, such as Triple Crown Casinos and Century, favor growth and development, but object to this particular proposal. He argued that proper rules and guidelines, which other casinos have followed, are being thrown away. Moreover, he questioned the lack of inquiry by city officials. “There is no factual support. The Cripple Creek staff is blindly accepting Full House’s arguments,” said Klein.
He predicted that this plan would lead to casino closures. Instead of establishing a project of special merit that accepts a design that is not historically acceptable for Cripple Creek, he suggested that the city change their historic codes to have a level playing field among all gaming properties, in case other casinos want to develop more large-scale projects. “The historic nature of Cripple Creek is eroded (with this project).”
Rose reminded the council that the arguments made by Full House run parallel to what was said by the Wildwood casino 10 years ago when they unveiled their project. Wildwood, located off Hwy. 67, was the first new casino construction the town had experienced in years. When the Wildwood started, the town hit a peak in gaming devices, a trend that has drastically decreased over the last 10 years.
Rose noted that nothing has changed since the advent of the Wildwood and that even with a new hotel, the realities of Cripple Creek serving as a day-trip area won’t change, and the dreams of turning Cripple Creek into a mini-Vegas won’t work. “There is still nothing to do at night,” said Rose.
Resident Nany McDonald, meanwhile, raised concerns about the impacts for residents of Carr Avenue. “I don’t want to stop growth, but I want you to take care of me.” She also questioned the big-dollar pursuits of proponents of the project. “This has to be about more than money,” added the restaurant, who suggested having a smaller hotel.
Business owner Tim Braun raised concerns over the project of special merit designation and urged the council not to sell away Cripple Creek’s strong heritage.
In countering these arguments, representatives of Bronco Billy’s maintained they aren’t getting any special privileges and they are following all current codes. “We are following the code to the letter,” said Carolynne White, a lead legal counsel for the project. “There is no special treatment.”
In their final analysis, the council and staff favored the proposal and cited the fact that it would displace betting devices or other gaming establishments. With their plan, the total amount of betting devices Bronco Billy’s will house won’t change that much. The gaming group has acquired the Imperial Hotel and so will be adding devices there. The Imperial expansion, though, wasn’t part of last week’s application.
With little discussion, the council, in their deliberations, approved the four development requests. These were: a project of special merit designation; a building height variance; the parking garage plans; and the Second Street vacation. The only real concerns expressed by elected leaders dealt with assuring the city had adequate financial protection, in case the project got abandoned.
According to Lee, the project should kick into full-gear in early summer with the parking garage construction. He hopes to have the hotel constructed by the summer of 2020. But according to the agreement approved by the city, they have until late 2021 to complete the venture, before the ownership of Second Street reverts back to the city.
The only remaining hurdle could involve potential legal action by opponents of the project, who could file an action in court or take other legal steps to possibly delay the work.
Larry Hill, the chief executive officer of Triple Crown Casinos, expressed disappointment with the council’s action. “We are disappointed by Cripple Creek City Council’s decision to issue a project of special merit to the Bronco Billy’s expansion,” said Hill in an e-mail statement provided to TMJ News, following last week’s hearing and feels strongly that the project disregards historic guidelines defined in the city’s building code and master plan and are assessing possible next steps. As a longtime local business, we value this community and its future. We are committed to being a good neighbor that honors residents and increasingly attracts visitors to Cripple Creek.”