A Hearty Town of Survivors

~ by Rick Langenberg ~

As Cripple Creek and Teller County celebrates another birthday bash for limited stakes gaming this week, one spirit still abounds:  resiliency and a hearty town of survivors.

Twenty seven years ago, the area tried to alter their fortunes through Lady Luck, in a path somewhat emulated after that of Deadwood, South Dakota (Well sort of). The campaign actually started as a rumor, but then took off when Cripple Creek joined forces with Central City and Black Hawk. And we also had a surprising ally: Doug Bruce, the infamous author of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR). 

Then Democratic Governor Roy Romer was faced with the decision to fight Bruce over his anti-tax and spending initiative or fight the proponents of limited stakes gaming. Luckily, Romer chose Bruce and trounced his bid convincingly in the Nov. 1990 election. As a result, Governor Roy opted not to mess too much with the gaming effort, which he strongly opposed. Consequently, the gaming ballot proposition passed overwhelmingly in a state vote, and the fun began in Oct. 1991. 

Bruce, who may have had the last laugh, then got TABOR through in 1992.

Thanks Doug four your timing.  

Since Oct. 1991, Cripple Creek and Teller County have experienced plenty of booms and busts, pains and high points from the gaming movement, which gave our little abode some well-deserved publicity. Some of the trends have dealt with such developments as: the explosion of casinos; the subsequent economic shake-out periods; massive consolidation times, when the big took over the small; colorful historic preservation battles; the push for festive family-oriented special events and marketing; the fight against the expansion of gaming in other parts of the state; entertainment fervor, with the birth of the Butte Theater and year-round theatrical performances; and the constant playing of the destination tourism cards and the quest for non-gaming attractions.   

Through this time, Cripple Creek emerged as hearty survivor. About 10 years ago, the whole industry appeared in peril, with the smoking ban (a huge impact on the industry, much more than anyone realized at the time), the national economic downturn, the fires and floods and closures of Hwy. 24. 

Talk surfaced of many business closures and the possibility of huge cuts in city services and amenities. As Cripple Creek Finance Director Paul Harris said at the time, it was the perfect storm of financial calamities. 

However, Teller County and Cripple Creek weathered the storm. County and city officials have also endured big fights with state leaders in retaining the money they deserve to handle the needed impacts.


Good times Are Back

Alas, the last several years have brought about a return to better times with casinos generating more wagers and better winnings. For a change, few closures have occurred and much more stability has developed. It’s not a paradise growth period, but it is quite healthy. The only real downer is that more casinos are operating with less games and devices, equating to less money for the city.

On the upside, talk abounds with the prospects of more hotels and non-gaming amenities. The Bronco Billy’s mega gaming hotel expansion is touted by some as a definite game-changer for the community, while some worry about the historic impacts.

But these are the types of controversies that you want in a gaming community.   


Historic Fights

And as the town celebrates its 27th-year anniversary this week, historic preservation appears to have returned to the spotlight again. Town leaders want to review the current rules and assess the standards for taking down old buildings. That’s a very healthy debate and one worth having.  

Sure, these fights won’t rival the early years, when some meetings almost turned into fist fights.

Cripple Creek and the state were quite strict about preservation in the early years. When the previous owners of the Imperial Hotel and Casino wanted to demolish three old homes for a hotel expansion, and then give the city a hefty payment for a historic project of their choice, guns came blazing with the state historic boys and girls brandishing political and legal weapons like never seen before. The end result:  The project died a swift death. 

The feud, though, got quite personal.

operators (for a brief period) no longer served certain favorite alcoholic beverages of the town’s former preservation director so the official wouldn’t frequent their establishment any longer.  Ouch! Talk about a rough penalty. Luckily, they didn’t extend that penalty to TMJ journalists.

But that controversy is a far cry from the state’s attitude today. When the 33-story Ameristar resort in Black Hawk came into play about nine years ago, all eyes were shut by state historical officials, who did nothing to stop this monstrosity from happening. What happened to the historic passion once displayed during the earlier Imperial expansion fight?

This lackadaisical attitude from the state may have changed the game for limited stakes gaming, a reality that the city is struggling with today.

But as Rockies baseball manager Bud Black likes to say, that is just baseball, a common cliché for going with the punches.  

Ameristar altered the market and gave what some experts believe was an unfair advantage to Black Hawk, which has turned the historic guidelines into a joke. As a result, a rather tense relationship has ensued between Teller and Gilpin counties over gambling, a feud punctuated with lawsuits.

In many ways, Cripple Creek has taken the middle road in striving for economic prosperity, but doing what it can to maintain the classic historic look. The town has encountered plenty of curve balls in the process, but has displayed an amazing survivor mentality.  

However, as the town celebrates another year of gaming, the town and county are still struggling with the quest to evolve as a destination area. This term has been toyed with and disguised with a variety of terms, such as heritage tourism and the best kept recreational secret in Colorado.

With this week’s birthday bash, Cripple Creek, though, appears to be stepping closer to finally waving the elusive destination area banner.

Do your part and, Come up to Cripple Creek to have a little fun!