Cripple Creek in the 1890s was a wide-open city. The bars, bawdy houses and gambling establishments never closed as long as there were customers to serve, cards to deal, suckers to fleece or fun to be had.
More than 120 years later, you can gamble around the clock in Cripple Creek casinos, but you can’t order a drink after 2 a.m. — at least not until July 15, when the party won’t end.
Taking advantage of a an obscure paragraph in the state’s liquor licensing laws, the Cripple Creek City Council passed an emergency ordinance earlier this summer that created a defined entertainment district and authorized 24-hour “common consumption areas” within the district. In practice, those common consumption areas will include casino floors and some outdoor spaces.
The new ordinance may have more benefits than detriments. For one thing, it might stem the 2 a.m. exodus of drinkers and gamblers heading down state Highway 67 for Colorado Springs, and encourage more late-night visitors to the historic gambling town. Such visitors may choose to stay overnight, turning a night out into a mini-vacation.
“Cripple Creek will be the only place in Colorado serving 24/7,” said Laura Long, a lobbyist who represents the Cripple Creek Casino Association. “That may attract new customers, such as servers and other night workers, who might not have thought of going there after work. We envision that it will go great — a fun kind of adult experience round the clock, at whatever time is convenient for you.”
Cripple Creek’s slimmed-down casino industry has endured multiple challenges in the past decade.
When voters approved casino gambling in Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek 25 years ago, it was marketed as a modest scheme to fund historic preservation and revive the three little cities. For a while, the three competed on relatively even terms. Black Hawk and Central City drew from the northern Front Range and the Denver metro area, while Cripple Creek claimed Colorado Springs, southern Colorado and New Mexico.
But Black Hawk quickly reinvented itself as the Vegas of the Rockies, happily erasing all trace of its historic past. Hobbled by poor highway access and competition from tribal casinos to the south and southwest, Cripple Creek stagnated.
The Great Recession forced smaller operators to close their doors, while others changed ownership or restructured. As the local economy slowly recovered, fires and floods periodically closed U.S. Highway 24, abruptly stopping the flow of visitors during the crucial summer seasons of 2012-13.
Thanks to an improving economy, a closure-free highway and reviving summer tourism, the Creek is on the mend. Will round-the-clock imbibing help? Casino owners and local politicians have lined up to support the measure, perhaps understanding that Cripple Creek is like a veteran NFL team; it needs to get younger fast.
Go to a casino, any casino, and what do you see? Retirees, aging Baby Boomers and major geezers, many ferried up from Colorado Springs via the Ramblin’ Express. Few of them would notice extended drinking hours, but that’s not the point.
“Cripple Creek will be the only place in Colorado serving 24/7.”
– Laura Long
A re-imagined Cripple Creek might become a new Colorado City, a place where Colorado Springs residents can escape to have fun.
Gen. William Jackson Palmer’s straight-laced city banned bars, distilleries, breweries, gambling and bawdy houses, while Colorado City welcomed them all.
Mayor John Suthers’ somewhat more relaxed city allows bars, distilleries, breweries, bingo and strip bars, while drawing the line at gambling, retail marijuana and 24/7 liquor sales.
Come July 15, you’ll be able to drink and gamble around the clock in Cripple Creek at the Double Eagle, Bronco Billy’s, Wildwood or Triple Crown casinos, and even charge your electric car at a city-sponsored charging station. There’s a cool new Bierworks taproom at the recently expanded Bronco Billy’s, and you can bet on the ponies at Wildwood.
And unlike Black Hawk, Cripple Creek retains its character. Bennett Avenue’s streetscape hasn’t much changed, although the buildings behind the ancient storefronts have been completely rebuilt. By partnering with its gritty neighbor Victor, Cripple Creek could become the new epicenter of cool in Colorado, two mountain towns shunned by wealthy tourists, high-stakes gamblers, ski instructors, mansion builders, real estate shysters and anyone or anything remotely fashionable.
Millennials should forget the overpriced fakery of Aspen, Telluride, Breckenridge and Vail — and go someplace real. Go to Victor, a mining town with an enormous operating mine or Cripple Creek, where the ghosts of Soapy Smith and Eat ’Em Jake still inspire today’s casino managers.
You may lose or you may win, but you’ll surely come this way again.