Stories

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By John Hazlehurst

Thirty years ago, Colorado voters approved a measure allowing limited-stakes gambling in three historic mining towns: Blackhawk, Central City and Cripple Creek. The once-booming little cities had been in decline for many decades, and gambling seemed like a great bet on the future.

Any bet looked good to Cripple Creek. The city’s population had peaked at 10,147 in 1900, shrinking to 584 in 1990. The Gold Rush era buildings still lined Bennett Avenue, although most were vacant and deteriorating. The shrinking local economy was supported only by a meager tourism industry and government payrolls. But, despite its diminished population, Cripple Creek remained the seat of Teller County.

The election ignited the city. Property values skyrocketed, entrepreneurs renovated derelict properties and a dozen small casinos opened along Bennett. Fifteen years later the population had doubled, and the industry had matured. The mom & pop casinos had either folded or been acquired by bigger players, and growth seemed likely to continue indefinitely – until the Great Recession hit.
Gaming revenue diminished and even the big dogs took a hit. By 2018 the recession was long gone, and casino owners launched ambitious expansion plans. The Wildwood Casino, located at the eastern end of the gaming district, was first off the mark, starting construction on a 102–room hotel in 2019. At $14 million, it was the smallest of three proposed projects. Next was a $40 million proposal by Triple Crown, topped by a game-changing $70 million project by Bronco Billy’s. Construction was ready to go in early spring of 2020 – and then Covid hit. The casinos closed and the city became a ghost town once again.

Voters came to the rescue. In November of 2020, Colorado voters approved a measure that allowed residents of the three gambling cities to remove the $100 limit on individual wagers and approve new games such as baccarat. Town residents followed suit and Bronco Billy’s owner Full House Resorts, upped the ante accordingly, committing $180 million to build a mega-casino and 300-room hotel slated to open in late 2022. The Chamonix Casino Hotel project includes high-dollar hotel rooms and suites, multiple restaurants, a parking garage, a rooftop pool, a spa and a sizeable convention and meeting space. It’ll also double the size of the gaming floor, creating room for as many as 1,000 slots (assuming that we’ve put the pandemic and social distancing in the rear-view window by then).

By borrowing over $300 million to fund this and other company projects, Full House CEO Dan Lee is making the biggest bet in Cripple Creek’s long history of reckless gold-seekers and optimistic gamblers. Lee believes that despite the city’s recent setbacks and relative inaccessibility (at least compared to Las Vegas and Blackhawk), he can pull this one off.

Can he? We’ll see – but meanwhile the new Wildwood Hotel is open for business. At 102 rooms, it’ll be the second largest in town until the Chamonix opens. Owner Joseph Canfora said, “Our goal was to design a hotel that provides a superior experience but at a price point that is affordable for the average visitor.”

Canfora is betting on the staid present, not Dan Lee’s vision of a gleaming future. Which will prevail? Maybe both – after all, the gaming market is wide and deep. There’s room for those of us who play nickels and quarters, as well as the high rollers who bet $1,000 a pop. So good luck to all and have fun in the Creek!

By Colin Christie
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