In 1992, the first full year after casino gambling was introduced in the historic Colorado mining towns of Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek, casinos in “The Creek” reported adjusted gross proceeds (AGP) of $52.5 million. Revenues climbed steadily during the next 13 years, peaking at $154.9 million in 2007. Since then, Cripple Creek gaming revenues have shrunk by more than 20 percent.
Despite higher betting limits, the introduction of table games and around-the-clock operating hours, AGP fell to $123 million in 2014. Even as the Colorado economy recovered in 2012-2014, Cripple Creek continued its long slide, with the usually robust summer months adversely affected by fire and flood in Colorado Springs. Repeated closures of Ute Pass not only discouraged summer visitors, but also motivated regular casino customers to take their business to Black Hawk and Central City.
Those that have survived the seven-year slump, including Bronco Billy’s, the Double Eagle, the Triple Crown group and Wildwood, have benefited from both economies of scale and the ability to offer more attractive visitor experiences.
Wildwood opened in 2008 just as the recession began. Located on the former site of a gas station/convenience store on the eastern edge of the business district, it has advertised itself as having the only Las Vegas-style casino floor in Cripple Creek. Compared to smaller establishments, it’s airy and modern with high ceilings and spacious restrooms. It also has underground heated parking beneath the casino, an attractive amenity during winter months.
Such advantages enabled Wildwood to gain market share at the expense of smaller venues. Many of the small casinos that used to enliven Bennett Avenue closed down, leaving vacant storefronts, peeling paint and deteriorating infrastructure.
Last summer, the city invested $4.4 million in rehabilitating Bennett Avenue, widening sidewalks, improving utilities and making the street more pedestrian-friendly. It appears that the money was well spent, encouraging at least one casino owner to place a bet on Bennett Avenue.
Bronco Billy’s expands
Marc Murphy, the general manager and co-owner of Bronco Billy’s, has been through good times and bad in the 24 years since he opened the casino in 1991. He’s the sole survivor — the last general manager still standing among the original entrepreneurs who swarmed into Cripple Creek when gaming was first legalized by Colorado voters in 1991.
The casino opened in a Bennett Avenue storefront with 50 employees and 100 gaming machines, including slots and video poker terminals. Thanks to capable management, low staff turnover and customer loyalty, Bronco Billy’s has flourished in good years and bad. The business now sprawls across multiple storefronts and currently boasts more than 700 gaming machines, three restaurants, four bars, a lounge with live music and 10 table games where customers can play roulette, craps and blackjack.
On May 16, Bronco Billy’s will open a 20,000-square-foot addition in adjacent historic buildings that formerly housed three small casinos — the Gold Rush, the Rush and Gold Diggers. The new space will add 14 hotel rooms, a banquet and events center, a taproom featuring craft beers from Woodland Park brewery BierWerks, three new table games and 80 additional machines.
The renovated buildings have been vacant for nearly five years. Despite the contracting market, Murphy is optimistic.
“The industry has evolved to a full spectrum of entertainment,” he said. “You can’t just offer gaming — you need more. We looked at [the expansion] as an opportunity to add additional amenities, particularly the new hotel rooms and the banquet facility. It’ll support 125 people — and craft beer is a product that visitors identify with Colorado.”
The expansion will add approximately 25,000 square feet to the casino, increasing the total to 72,000 square feet. And by renovating a once-blighted stretch of Bennett Avenue, it creates a substantial community benefit.
Bets on the ponies
On May 2, Kentucky Derby day, the Wildwood Casino opened the Turf Club, an off-track betting facility on the casino floor.
“We started the process five years ago,” said Wildwood General Manager Kevin Werner. “We’re the only casino in the state with off-track betting, and there won’t be any others — we got the last license.”
It’s a customer-friendly, appealing area that drew a good crowd on opening day. Bettors relaxed in comfortable chairs or hustled to place their bets as post time approached. Eighteen television screens simulcast live signals, and Wildwood offered mint juleps on-the-house. Attendees who chose to dress for the occasion competed for cash prizes, with the winners walking off with $100, $50 and $25. One shabbily dressed journalist/handicapper bet on Dortmund to win and place, but the nag faded in the stretch and came in third!
But that’s OK. As every gambler believes, the next bet may be the lucky one. And if not, a pleasant stroll down Bennett Avenue on a summer afternoon capped off with one of BierWerks’ craft brews should dull the pain.
Just make sure you put aside a few bucks for the beer.