Cripple Creek considering $100-million ‘megadeal’

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Casinos are putting money into improvements for downtown Cripple Creek, hoping for better times ahead.

With a population of around 1,200, Cripple Creek punches way above its weight. It’s arguably the best preserved and most interesting of Colorado’s historic mining towns and (with its next-door neighbor Victor) one of the few that haven’t been overwhelmed by gentrification. It’s a tough little city, one built by gold and now supported by casino gambling.

On April 19, the Cripple Creek City Council met to consider an expansion proposal by Full House Resorts, the owner of Bronco Billy’s Casino. It’s not a routine rearrangement of existing space, but a $100-million megadeal. The plan calls for the partial closure of Second Street and adjacent alleys to consolidate a 6-acre site in the heart of the Bennett Avenue Historic District. The surface parking lots and rickety outbuildings that now occupy most of the site would be replaced by a gleaming hotel/casino/conference center, with an adjacent parking structure. The 200-room hotel would have resort-scale amenities, and would be designed to draw overnight visitors, not just weekday gamblers.

“The average length of stay for visitors to Cripple Creek is about three hours,” said Full House CEO Dan Lee, who believes that the city is ready for a transformative makeover. In an earlier interview, he noted that the gaming spend in Colorado Springs is substantially below that of comparable cities with easy access to casino gambling.

When Colorado voters legalized limited-stakes casino in gambling in the mountain towns of Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek in 1991, the three towns experienced a decade-long economic renaissance. In Cripple Creek, the sleepy storefronts along Bennett Avenue were quickly converted to casino use. By the early 2000s many of the small operators had disappeared, yet the maturing market seemed reasonably healthy and dynamic. Nineteen licensees fought for market share, although the rapid growth of the 1990’s had slowed considerably.

The recession changed everything. Bankruptcies, downsizing and closures scarred Cripple Creek, as adjusted gross proceeds of the city’s casinos fell from $147.2 million in 2007 to $133.4 million in 2017. During the same period, the number of “devices” (e.g., slot machines, video poker machines and the like) dropped from 4,676 to 3,591. 

But while Cripple Creek declined, Black Hawk prospered. When the 33-story Ameristar Casino Resort opened in 2009, CEO Gordy Kanofsky called it “Colorado’s first head-to-head competition with Vegas. All that’s missing is the airfare and [security] check lines.”

In 1991, Black Hawk was a wide spot on the road with a few dozen moldering historic structures. In 2017, the city’s casinos took in $609.4 million in AGP with 7,370 devices. With a population of 127, it’s still a wide spot on the road, albeit a very prosperous one.

But Cripple Creek is a real city, a place with history, tradition and spirited, disputatious residents. That sense of place was evident before the afternoon council meeting, as citizens waited in line for the doors to open.

“What are you doing here?” a white-bearded elder asked this reporter. “David Barber. We know each other.”

Indeed. Now retired, Barber is a Colorado Springs architect/planner who wrote Cripple Creek’s original preservation ordinances in 1991. He was there as a consultant to Full House, blending right in with the unpretentious, casually dressed crowd.

The doors opened, and more than 100 people jammed the cramped, airless meeting room. During the next five hours, dozens would speak for and against the proposal, but the ayes far outweighed the nays. Representatives of competing casinos characterized the plan as a multimillion-dollar giveaway that would erode the city’s historic character, force other casinos out of business and fail in its stated goal to make Cripple Creek a destination resort.

“There still won’t be anything to do at night,” said Century Casinos general manager Eric Rose. 

But the Bronco Billy’s team had spent months laying the ground for approval. General manager and former owner Marc Murphy opened Bronco’s in 1991, and has been a hands-on, highly visible figure in the community ever since. He understands the city.

“Marc and I went door to door,” said Bronco’s communication director Wendy Fields, “and talked to people who had their doubts about the project, or thought that their views would be blocked. People here really appreciate and expect that one-on-one attention.”

Speaking in support, members of the community cited Murphy’s history of community involvement and the prospect of more jobs. Small business owners wanted more potential customers, and were impressed by the numbers: 300,000 square feet of new construction, a more walkable and accessible downtown and the prospect of broad-based community revitalization.

Council agreed, voting unanimously to approve the project subject to some minor modifications proposed by city staff. 

That approval is also good news for Colorado Springs. We should think of a revived Cripple Creek as another regional attraction, another fun thing for visitors and residents alike. The cog railway on Pikes Peak may have vanished for good, but in two years we can visit the new Cripple Creek.

Gold, gambling and good times — what’s not to like?

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect Gordy Kanofsky’s correct name. It is Gordy, not Gary.