Last week Marc Murphy, the founder, former owner and general manager of Bronco Billy’s Casino in Cripple Creek officially retired. He’s the last of the OGs (original gangsters), the bold, underfunded entrepreneurs who launched casino gambling in Cripple Creek in 1991.
And Murphy not only survived, but also thrived. He continually expanded and upgraded his once-tiny operation, eventually acquiring adjacent buildings along Bennett Avenue and going head to head with better-funded newcomers.
His going-away party was held in a spacious meeting room at Bronco Billy’s. Invitees included current and former staff, longtime customers, friends and family members.
Murphy shouldn’t have to worry about money. While remaining general manager, he sold Bronco’s to Full House Resorts three years ago for $30 million. Alone among his 1991 peers, he stayed the course and was richly rewarded for doing so.
When Coloradans voted in 1991 to allow gambling in three semi-derelict historic mountain towns, they may have believed that “limited-stakes gaming” didn’t really mean casino gambling.
The Cripple Creek antique stores would add a few slot machines in the rear to help pay the bills, the state would collect tax revenue and put much of it into historic preservation, and Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek would be revived, thanks to a little family-friendly gaming.
That’s not what happened, as money poured into the Colorado gambling industry. Black Hawk and Central City competed for customers from Denver and the Western Slope, while Cripple Creek pulled patrons from Colorado Springs, Pueblo and surrounding states.
In Cripple Creek, historic storefronts along Bennett Avenue were preserved and restored, but the antique stores, restaurants and shops that once lined the streets eventually vanished, swept away by the growth of the gaming industry.
The small casinos that opened their doors in 1991 were themselves quickly supplanted by bigger, better-capitalized firms. New buildings were constructed for the Double Eagle Hotel & Casino and Wildwood Casino, while most of the small operators either closed or sold out, with one exception.
Bronco Billy’s restored and joined six historic buildings during the hectic years between 1991 and 2003.
“It’s a real, Colorado-style casino; it’s what gaming was intended to be when it was voted in,” Murphy told the Business Journal’s sister publication, the Colorado Springs Independent, in June 2003. “People feel it’s quaint and unique, [but] when you’re talking about a 100-year-old building, you have to spend a lot of money to remodel it and bring it up to code.”
But the bloom was off the rose, as state governments across the country persuaded tax-averse voters to legalize casino gambling. Few out-of-state gamblers ventured to the Creek, while Black Hawk dominated the Colorado market. After expanding rapidly in the good years, Cripple Creek entered a long period of stagnation. Soaring from $26.7 million in 1992 to $153 million in 2007, adjusted gross proceeds from all Cripple Creek casinos fell to $124 million in 2015, recovering to $136 million in 2018. In this shrinking market, Bronco Billy’s expanded and increased market share. The casino now occupies seven buildings with about 850 devices.
What’s Murphy’s management secret? Why does Bronco’s dominate its market while apparently better-funded rivals fall behind?
“We all have pretty much the same games, and your chances are pretty much the same everywhere, so it comes down to customer service,” Murphy’s then partner Mike Chaput said in a 2008 interview. “We come from a hotel/restaurant background, not the casino industry, so that’s what we’re good at.”
That has translated to low staff turnover and fierce customer loyalty. Staff are attentive to customers’ needs, and particularly solicitous of regulars.
If you think casino owners are like Andy Garcia in Ocean’s Eleven, strolling the casino floor in an Armani suit with Julia Roberts, forget it. Dressed like any staffer, Murphy sweeps, cleans up and occasionally helps out at the steakhouse, making tableside guacamole for customers. It’s hard to imagine Bronco’s without its hands-on general manager.
“I guess he’ll be doing a lot of golf and fishing,” said Murphy’s daughter Caitlyn, “but right now he’s been retired for three weeks and I don’t think he knows what to do with himself.”
The customers may be just as confused, now that Full House has begun a $100 million renovation that will utterly transform both the casino and its downtown neighborhood.
“I don’t know where I’m going to play,” said Lucy, a silver-haired regular who favors the quarter slots. “I don’t much like change.”