Cripple Creek Kicks Off 31st Year of Summer Gaming

Rick Langenberg

Nestled in the shadow of Pikes Peak is the small and remarkable town of Cripple Creek.

During the gold rush of the late 1800s, Cripple Creek became one of the biggest economic hubs in the West, as gold seekers and miners flooded the area. Many of these historic turn- of-the century buildings, the majority of which were constructed following the fires of 1896, still remain.

Local leaders and residents opted for a second gold rush of sorts by trying to revitalize the town and its deteriorating buildings through limited stakes gaming, which began on Oct. 1, 1991. This followed a state-wide campaign and a favorable vote by Colorado voters.
Another pro-gaming vote occurred in late 2008 that paved the way for 24-hour gambling, $100 single-bet wagers and new games such as roulette and craps.

And in the summer of 2015, town leaders upped the ante again by agreeing to establish an official entertainment district, which set the stage for common consumption areas that permit 24/7 cocktail service for gaming and restaurant customers. This is part of an effort to draw more patrons in town and provide a more festive environment.

This pro-gambling trend continued even further as state voters in Nov. 2019 decided they wanted to allow sports betting on professional games inside licensed gaming establishments in Cripple Creek, Black Hawk and Central City, or through the gaming establishments’ related apps. A similar local vote also was approved on the same issue.

Sports betting, which has been in effect for two-plus years, provides more excitement, especially during high showdown sports games, such as the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup, the World Series, and yes, the NBA Championship. Most offer this through third-party sportsbooks.

The coronavirus epidemic, which hit in March 2020, struck the city and the industry hard, forcing gaming establishments to shut down for three months. The city of Cripple Creek suffered a reduction of $2.3 million in revenue, and was forced to no longer sponsor many popular special events.

Casinos were allowed to reopen in mid-June 2020, but they faced many COVID-19 restrictions, capacity limits and table games were not permitted.

But now, it’s back to business as usual and the local gaming industry has rebounded well.

Still, the gaming industry offers fewer betting devices since its heyday as casinos definitely reduced their betting inventory following the pandemic. Cripple Creek currently features fewer than 3,000 betting devices and games, significantly lower that earlier times, when the industry sported more than 5,000 games of chance.

However, the town is showcasing new patron attraction: no-limit wagering on individual bets and more games.

This development, approved by the voters of Colorado and in Cripple Creek, officially began in May of 2021 and has upped the ante for card and table games. This completely eliminates the $100 single-bet wager limits and adds new games. This bid has set the stage for more high rollers of a new demographic, who may prefer to spend a few days in Cripple Creek instead of flying off to national gambling destinations like Las Vegas. This plan was heavily supported by local leaders and casino operators in all three towns, and got the okay of Colorado voters in an earlier election.

Destination Mecca

Proponents of no-limit gaming say this will accelerate plans to make Cripple Creek into more of a destination area.

This trend is further accelerated by more than $300 million worth of hotel expansion developments, aimed at giving Cripple Creek more amenities and promoting more several-day vacations in the area. Three major casino/hotel bids are in the works or in the planning stages.

The Wildwood casino opened its new $14 million, 101-room new hotel in the summer of 2021 and the reception for this lodging venture has been outstanding. The Bronco Billy’s mega expansion, the Chamonix resort, is also in full swing, with construction hitting the jackpot for a mega parking garage and a 300-plus-room hotel addition, with a spree of amenities. This multi-story project, which now commands mainstage attention for visitors, is expected to open on Dec. 26 (see related story).

The project has been described as a “game changer” for Cripple Creek. City officials and community leaders see this as propelling the drive for making Cripple Creek into a destination area. “I think we have to shoot for that goal,” said City Administrator Frank Salvato, in describing the effort to make Cripple Creek into a destination area and just not a day-trip gaming stop.

Besides the Billy’s expansion, a proposed boutique hotel bid by Triple Crown Casinos, which will be located in the back of the Brass Ass area, has previously received the green light by city leaders. This project calls for a general store and a number of non-gaming amenities.

A massive amount of improvements too are slated for the Wildwood casino, as part of  new ownership by a company lead by Texas billionaire and restaurant tycoon Tilman Fertitta. The Wildwood will become part of Fertitta Entertainment’s Golden Nugget casino brand.

Expansion efforts are moving ahead on the nongaming front with a variety of new business ventures. The Gold Camp Café has been a big hit, along with The Mercantile retail shop. The Mercantile has gained much popularity too with the addition of a take-out Mexican restaurant, El Burro Loco.

In addition, the new District Kitchen and Saloon, located on Bennett Avenue, is slated to open sometime this summer. The Saloon has already gotten the go-ahead by the city in its bid for a liquor license. This has been one of the most ambitious renovation projects of a site that once served as a gift shop.

And last November, local citizens decided to open the door for retail and medical marijuana outlets on a limited basis.  After enacting a temporary moratorium on licensing new cannabis operators, and implementing a bevy of guidelines, the stage is now set for marijuana entrepreneurs to submit applications in early July. The city will initially permit two cannabis operators to sell medicinal and recreational pot (see related story). If successful, this could open up the door for more fiscal revenue and a new younger, visitor demographic.

This burgeoning non-gaming effort, which hit first base in 2021, with the reopening of The Creek restaurant, is much more than what the town has experienced in recent years. Small business operators are much more united than in past years.

Plus, the town has experienced a growing interest in affordable housing efforts, courtesy of temporary development incentives aimed at make these projects more appealing for developers. It is estimated this incentive program has paved the way for more than 20 new housing units in the last year, a dramatic increase from previous years, with plans for many more units. In fact, plans are on the table for close to 1,000 more units over an extended period.

Several casinos have taken the lead edge in okaying new housing projects for their workers. A big employee shortage is the main hurdle facing the gaming community. That, and the need to enhance the town’s infrastructure, are mentioned as Cripple Creek’s main challenge.

In addition, the city has opted to play out its recreation hand further, efforts capped by the earlier legalization of ATV (all-terrain vehicles) use on all city streets, 24 hours a day. The town also sports an elaborate adventure park, complete with an 18-hole disc golf course, a dog park, hiking trails, an expanded BMX facility, sledding areas and much more.

This is part of an overall push to become more of a well-rounded community. As part of their new marketing approach, the city wants to promote more adventure and recreation activities and have smaller events done by more nonprofit organizations. The city council is now reviewing a recently completed community action plan, done by a group of CU students, with the guidance from key community leaders and interested residents. It is aimed at providing a game plan for moving ahead with the city’s multi-varied outdoor recreation pursuits and main street development opportunities.

As the town celebrates the 31st anniversary of summer gambling, the gaming community faces renewed challenges. But overall, the town is rebounding well. Nope, the downtown area is not filled with 30-plus casinos, similar to the first summer of gaming, but the town is operating a steadier development hand. No casino closures occurred, following the COVID epidemic. That fact is quite astounding.

Unlike Black Hawk, the perennial jackpot champ of Colorado gaming, historic preservation is a big player in Cripple Creek.

So, even though state-of-the-art gaming devices dominate the interior of many of these buildings in the downtown core, the ambiance of this quaint turn-of-the-century town prevails. The casinos in Cripple Creek offer daily, weekly and seasonal promotions. These change often, so check with regular updates in The Mountain Jackpot (TMJ) or check the websites of the local casinos.
The following is a description of some of the prime casino properties in Cripple Creek.