End of the Paul Harris Era

The Financial Anchor of Cripple Creek Gets Real-Deserved Recognition

Rick Langenberg

Sometimes when you confront bumpy, turbulent waters, which is often the case in Cripple Creek’s turbulent gambling currents, you need a strong anchor.

This has become one saving grace for Cripple Creek and is a strong reason the city has survived the rocky times of limited stakes gaming. Since slots started ringing down Bennett Avenue and legal games of chance were played, the town has experienced nearly 10 city managers/head administrators, a plethora of marketing chiefs and probably 50 different elected leaders.  But for nearly three decades, it has only sported one financial chief.

That is quite a track record for a town that isn’t exactly the calmest place politically and one that faced ongoing financial challenges, including the COVID-19 epidemic that shut down the area for several months and cost the local government $2 million-plus; the ups and downs of limited stakes gaming and its cyclical market jolts; constant fights with state lawmakers, who are keen on snagging our gaming funds; and frequent internal managerial and administrative changes and many different councils; and yes, a hefty lineup of so-called experts who maintained they knew how to run Cripple  Creek’s financial ship.

Last week marked the end of Paul Harris’ ongoing role as the city’s head financial director.  Paul received special recognition at a recent council meeting, as it definitely represented the end of an era.  Cripple Creek has found itself on solid financial turf, largely because of his management.  He has served as the town’s financial chief for close to 30 years, and often wore additional hats occasionally as an acting city administrator.

A Rough Start

But it wasn’t always easy. When Harris started out as the town’s head financial chief, the town government and the gaming industry were often at odds.  He came on board after the infamous “Deadwood Party,” when a huge assortment of officials, employees and leaders decided to take a several-day, so-called education tour of Deadwood, South Dakota, which ended up more as a drunken rampage (at least for some of the folks attending the tour) at the taxpayers’ expense. They definitely toured the Deadwood bars and saloons, but not much else. Many people in the community were outraged.

At the same time, gaming industry leaders were examining every cent of the city’s proposed spending budget, such as counting how many pens or computers were used. The local media, including us, were having a field day with headlines.

Then to top matters off, Harris detected some questionable spending by certain high officials, including a former top clerk, who in essence used city monies to foot the bill for their gambling habits. An official investigation was launched by the District Attorney’s Office, with crime tape surrounding city hall. Several top employees were terminated or forced out. A criminal trial eventually occurred with defense attorneys trying to depict Cripple Creek as a Mayberry R.F.D. town with no real rules or procedures.

It was definitely wild times in the Teller gambling hub. Council and historic preservation meetings sometimes resulted in near fist fights.

I remember Paul, when he even questioned one of our headlines about what gaming folks depicted as a soaring out-of-control spending budget at the time. One gaming manager, who passed away a number of years ago, turned to Harris and smirked, “Welcome to Cripple Creek, Paul.”

But the calm definitely ensued when Kip Petersen (who actually was the head planning director at the time for the city), took the reins as the city’s top manager, and lasted in that role for nearly a decade.  Relations definitely improved between the casino industry and city hall.  More notably, fiscal accountability prevailed in city circles.

Over the last few decades, Paul has taken strong measures to prepare Cripple Creek for the inevitable:  a shrinking market share due to the growth of Black Hawk (due to their absence of historical buildings) and the national growth of casinos across the country and our region.  As Harris often noted, when Cripple Creek opened the local door for limited stakes gaming, it was one of the few mountain communities in the country to offer this attraction.  That isn’t the case now, nor has it been for a number of years.

Paul was known for his multiple, colorful charts.

Can’t say I will miss all the diagrams, but his conclusions were right on target.

And Harris kept the town and county abreast of state threats, ranging from possible competing communities and questionable trends, such as the advent of video lottery terminals, efforts to basically steal our money by state officials and governors. (Have we ever had a Colorado governor who helped out the gaming industry?) He remained on the forefront of the legislative turf battles.

While the county commissioners, such as the current ones, were often good at conveying much passion in fighting against certain threats to the area, Harris knew more about the real nuts and bolts and financial details and complex nuances regarding these issues.

Through it all, he resisted the temptation to actually become a permanent city manager for Cripple Creek, opting to avoid the political fray.

And more impressive, he dealt with a wide variety of council leaders and personalities, who sometimes didn’t get along that well.  If you took such illustrious leaders as Dan Baader, Ed Libby, Terry Wahrer, Bruce Brown, Tom Litherland, Missy Trenary and Maurice Woods, coupled with some of the colorful former staff members, such as Brian Levine, and Doug Shane, and put them in a room together; well, I don’t think we would get a peace gathering.

His secret to success in my opinion was an amazing ability to stick to the numbers.

TMJ News wishes Paul Harris and his family the best as he steps down and partakes in more fun activities, such as snowboarding and scaling high peaks. Know Paul is quite a wiz on the slopes.

The city may not be done with Paul, as he may help the town out more on the legislative front. Cripple Creek and the gaming communities are often the target of our greedy state boys and girls up in Denver. They are always eying our gaming revenue.

And we may have some future opportunities, such as trying to get a share of at least some of the tax monies generated by the multi-billion-dollar sports betting industry.

Cripple Creek is not done with Paul Harris yet.