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Left, a rendering of a proposed expansion of Bronco Billy's in Cripple Creek. Right, Bronco BIlly's stretching along Bennet Avenue in Cripple Creek on Dec. 18, 2018. (Sue McMillin, Special to The Colorado Sun)

CRIPPLE CREEK – The excitement about building plans they believe could jumpstart a stagnant economy and put the town on the map of “must-visit” destinations is palpable among shopkeepers, city officials and gaming managers here.

The natural beauty of land formed by ancient volcanoes, the rich mining history, outdoor recreation and gambling are all part of the equation. What must be added is places for people to stay, more family-oriented activities and marketing that ties it all together, they say.

The seemingly sudden burst of casino company plans to add about 500 new hotel rooms, spas and upscale restaurants to Cripple Creek has people talking about the town’s potential.

“We need to leverage the excitement that is building with these projects,” said Steve Kitzman, Cripple Creek’s director of marketing and events. “I hope the national economy stays strong, because it’s time for us to build and grow.”

The wish list of ideas is long — free electric trolley service, a trail system connecting to the Ring the Peak Trail, a brewpub, a distillery, more shops, affordable housing, family-friendly restaurants (i.e. not in a bar or casino), a vibrant Bennett Avenue with no vacant or deteriorating buildings, more events focused on history, a zipline and even an amusement park — but the money is short.

Some are concerned the exuberant growth plans will leave the area’s history in the dust. Others worry about the lack of affordable housing and child care for workers in a town where the two major industries — mining and gambling — operate 24/7.

And, some point out, no shovels have hit the ground.

But time and money has been invested in economic studies, architectural designs and grant applications. The city council has approved that largest project, a $70 million expansion of Bronco Billy’s, and earlier this month the Historic Preservation Commission approved a Certificate of Appropriateness for a $40 million Triple Crown Casinos expansion. Together, those two projects would add up to 350 hotel rooms within two to three years.

Wildwood Casino is finalizing plans for a 100-room hotel adjacent to its casino, and Century Casinos is working on concept and design plans to restore and expand the old Palace Hotel to add up to 55 rooms.

Generally, the expansion plans would not increase gambling capacity, although Bronco Billy’s plans to add some devices and tables where its casino connects to the new hotel, and Wildwood may include a new premium players room. But the emphasis is on “other amenities” to get visitors to see Cripple Creek as more than a daytrip or a gambling town. In the popular tourism vernacular, it wants to be a “destination,” but it is still defining the “for what” portion of that goal.

Kitzman said the town is working on melding its conflicting identities of an old mining town and a gambling town, but he believes it can blend its assets and attract more visitors.

“The Cripple Creek economy is based almost entirely on tourism, so we have to be a destination,” he said. “We’ve been refining our mission and vision statement. I think Cripple Creek has the potential to be the No. 1 historical destination in the western U.S.”  

Howard Melching introduces Dr. Cheryl Stein, who portrays Doc Susie during the Mt. Pisgah Cemetery tour on Sept. 16, 2018. (Sue McMillin, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The faded gold camp

A few cattle ranchers made their home on the high rangeland west of Pikes Peak in the late 1800s as gold strikes in other parts of the state drew prospectors. But the region was to have its own Gold Rush, which would be the last and richest in Colorado.

Bob Womack discovered worthy samples of gold in 1890, and by 1891 the rush was on in what would become the Cripple Creek and Victor Mining District.

Production in the district’s 500 mines peaked in 1900, when the population of the area’s numerous towns and mining camps was estimated to be as high as 50,000 people. The district mined more than 23 million ounces of gold within about 100 years — worth more than $11 billion in today’s dollars — and produced numerous millionaires, but they and their money are long gone from the district.

The population declined sharply in the early 20th century, and by the 1950s, only about 2,000 people remained in the three surviving towns — Cripple Creek, Victor and Goldfield.

Despite occasional mining operations, Cripple Creek was nearly a ghost town by 1990, when it had 600 residents. Victor had a population of about 250, and the census tract that was Goldfield had fewer than 50. The houses and commercial buildings that remained were deteriorating rapidly.  

Betting on gaming

That year, Colorado voters approved limited-stakes gambling in Cripple Creek, Central City and Black Hawk. Victor residents opted out of the deal, choosing to keep casinos about 5-miles away from the town. With rules limiting bets to $5 in place, the first casinos opened on Oct. 1, 1991.

It was a way to bring in money to help save the history, residents believed, and thousands of dollars from gambling taxes and fees have been funneled to historic preservation.

“Before gaming came in it was a pretty dead place,” said Howard Melching, president of the Gold Camp Victorian Society. “I voted for the gaming amendment because it was a way to get some old places rejuvenated. And it has done that.”

Buildings in Cripple Creek were required to retain their historical facades as casinos refurbished the interiors and moved in. The population doubled, and today about 62 percent of the city’s budget comes from gambling taxes and device fees, Kitzman said.

Gambling revenue hit a high in Cripple Creek in fiscal year 2006-07 with adjusted gross proceeds of $153,087,028. Then it declined over the next decade to a low in fiscal year 2014-15 of $124,334,290, according to Colorado Division of Gaming statistics. It has rebounded in the past three years, recording adjusted gross proceeds of $136,386,990 in fiscal year 2017-18.

The number of casinos has fluctuated over the years, and the number of overall devices has declined.

But casino operators say there’s plenty of capacity — what they want are more people spending more time in town. That’s what others want, too.

Interestingly, the declines came as casinos moved to 24-hour operations, including serving alcohol around the clock, and the betting limit was raised to $100 from $5 in 2009 after Colorado voters approved loosening restrictions.

But in Black Hawk, revenues increased while Cripple Creek’s declined, according to “The Case for Cripple Creek,” an economic study of gambling and resort towns compiled by  Dan Lee, CEO of Full House Resorts, the parent company of Bronco Billy’s.  The study was unveiled in November 2017, when Bronco Billy’s proposed its expansion.

“Meanwhile, in October 2009, the Ameristar hotel opened in Black Hawk, adding 536 guest rooms, a full-service spa, and meeting and ballroom space to its existing casino,” the report says. “It was the first true quality resort in Colorado gaming and added amenities that did not previously exist in Black Hawk.”

“Since that time, gaming revenues in Black Hawk have risen steadily, while those of Cripple Creek have declined.  Black Hawk now has $103 million more of annual revenues than it did in 2008, while Cripple Creek has $9 million less. It appears that some of the decline in Cripple Creek may reflect gamblers in Colorado Springs taking the longer drive to see and enjoy the greater amenities offered by the Ameristar.”

Kitzman points out that the same thing has happened in Las Vegas and elsewhere.

In part, that’s because more casinos have opened throughout the country. But it’s also because of demographic changes, he said.

“More gamblers are dying every day than being born,” Kitzman said. “In Nevada the graph of device numbers is the same — much less devices and the gaming floor space has gone to entertainment.

“Here in Cripple Creek we haven’t done that as readily. I think that is coming.”

Many in Cripple Creek shudder at the thought of an Ameristar-like hotel, which rises 33 stories above Black Hawk.

But most like the idea of more hotel rooms, entertainment and meeting venues and amenities to attract more people, although there is disagreement over the designs and other details.

A rendering of the proposed Bronco Billy’s casino in Cripple Creek. (CannonDesign)

Blending old and new

Planning and Community Development Director Bill Gray said it’s more important for new construction to be compatible than to try to emulate historical buildings. He and others point out that just because something is old doesn’t mean it has historical value, and it may not be cost-effective to restore some deteriorated buildings.

There’s no question that the large projects proposed would change the face of downtown.

Bronco Billy’s 300,000-square-foot addition would envelope Second Street with a brick and glass structure between Bennett and Carr avenues.

Likewise, Triple Crown’s proposed hotel and other facilities would stretch along Myers Avenue, which parallels Bennett to the south. The casino is not seeking to close any streets, but its designs show a rooftop restaurant bridging Third Street as part of the 140,000-square-foot project.

Century Casinos’ project at the Palace Hotel at Bennett Avenue and Second Street, directly across from the Bronco Billy’s expansion, could include some sort of passage across Second Street to tie into the casino.

All of that would change the look of the town from west of Second Street to Fourth Street along Bennett and Myers avenues.

Change, too, would come to the town’s east entrance with Wildwood’s new 3½-story hotel topped by an entertainment deck on the edge of town.  

“Some of our members liked the (Bronco Billy’s) expansion, but most of us thought it took away the ambiance,” Melching said. “This idea that they can go ahead and build all these new structures and close off Second Street — I hate to see the history pushed aside in the interest of gaming.

“I understand the financial aspect for the city and all that, but I think we’re going to lose the historical aspect of the city.

“My view is that gaming can come and go, but the history will always be there. I’d like to see the town market its historic nature as well, and I think they’re getting away from that.”

Kitzman and Gray counter that bringing more visitors and their money to town would  allow the city to promote the historical importance of the region.

“There was a huge amount of money pulled out of the gold camp here in the 1890s and 1900s,” Kitzman said. “All the titans of (American) industry were invested here. The wealth generated here was incredible, and nobody really knows about it — and we’re still mining gold here today.”

Michelle Rozell, heritage tourism manager, said the recently adopted lodging tax would help pay for other projects.

“We need to collaborate and work with everyone,” she said. “I think we’re moving in the proper direction.”

Visitor numbers at the Heritage Center rise every year, but they still get visitors who say they’ve driven by for two years and didn’t know what the town had to offer.

The city is seeking a grant for a feasibility study to reinstate an electric trolley on Bennett Avenue. Two 1899 trolley cars have been donated and are awaiting restoration.

“It would connect all the casinos, shops, museums, shopping out on Teller (County Road) 1,” he said. “It would be great for tourists and great for residents. That is a massive initiative that ties in with the hotel projects.

“Our greatest asset is our character, as a 1896 gold mining town,” he continued. “We want to stay architecturally close to that but be efficient. We drive cars now, we don’t drive horses.”

He points out that fire codes and access requirements also play a role in restoration and redevelopment projects.

Cripple Creek native John Freeman, who retired from the Army and, with his wife, Miki, bought Cripple Creek Candy three years ago, agrees.

“There’s a way to keep the historical value and grow,” he said. “We can’t stay stagnant.

“There’s huge potential here, but we’ve got to give people other things to do.”

Cripple Creek profile:

  • Population: 1,200
  • Median age: 47.2
  • High school graduate or higher: 89 percent
  • Median household income: $38,438
  • Individuals below poverty level: 14 percent

Teller County profile:

  • Population: 24,646
  • Median age: 49.8
  • High school graduate or higher:  95 percent
  • Median household income: $66,809
  • Individuals below poverty level: 7.5 percent
  • Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2017 statistics

Still a mining town

Newmont Mining Corp.’s Cripple Creek & Victor Mine operating 24/7 in huge open pits that run from southeast of Cripple Creek to along the north edge of Victor are a ready reminder of what brought people here in 1891. Last year, Newmont processed 365,000 ounces of gold, according to Mike Shaffner, general manager of CC&V.

The surface mining began in 1995, and Newmont acquired the operation in 2015. It expects surface mining to dwindle by 2028, but this year will explore the possibility of underground mining at 10-12 targets, Shaffner said.

“Everywhere you see a headframe there are targets for underground mining,” he said in December. During an August mine tour for area residents he said, “by 2020 we want to be underground.”

Newmont has restored, and in some cases moved, historical mining assets, and major reclamation efforts are set to begin in 2031. So, the company will be an economic force in the area for decades.

With 600 employees, it’s the largest employer in Teller County, said Penny Riley, external relations coordinator. About 50 percent of that workforce lives in Teller County, 25 percent in Fremont County, 12.5 percent in El Paso County and 12.5 percent in “other” areas, she said.

Mining officials would like more of its workforce to live locally, but the lack of affordable housing, high utility costs and a school system that often is in turmoil are a deterrent to attracting families.

Riley serves on the Community of Caring Foundation’s housing and child care task forces, which were created last summer as casino expansion talks intensified. Likewise, casino operators, city officials and nonprofit leaders are involved.

“Housing, housing, housing,” Joe Canfora, owner of Wildwood Casino, said when asked about issues that could stymie growth. “We need employee housing — we need affordable employee housing.”

Miki and John Freeman at their Cripple Creek Candy shop on Jan. 6, 2019. (Sue McMillin, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Workforce housing

The lack of housing in the mining district tops virtually everyone’s list of challenges. Finding construction workers, improving the quality of life and marketing what Cripple Creek has to offer follow closely.

Ted Borden, executive director of the Community of Caring Foundation at the Aspen Mine Center, said the community must have a multi-pronged approach to eliminating the long-standing shortage of workforce housing.

“The old houses without good insulation have high utility costs,” he said. The town has only eight government-subsidized housing units and only a handful of apartments or duplexes.

The housing task force is considering such things as a tiny house development, cabins and other developments, he said. Habitat for Humanity is looking at a potential development just south of Divide, although there are infrastructure issues to overcome.

Triple Crown Casinos recently purchased the former Gold Fever Inn to provide efficiency and one-bedroom apartments for its workforce. CEO Larry Hill said the project won’t require much remodeling as the building is in good shape and he expects the 52 or 53 units to be available in February.

Canfora said Wildwood began working on concepts for workforce housing a few months ago and has purchased some land.

The city also changed its development rules to allow building on a single, 25-foot wide lot. Previously, building a house required two lots.

The house must have a foundation and a Victorian or miner’s cabin look, but the change would make it feasible for people to build a 500- to 1,000-square-foot house for around $100,000, Kitzman said.

“This went a long way to make it more affordable and livable,” he said, noting that housing is an issue for the entire community, including teachers, police officers, firefighters.

The housing task force split off a committee to look at child care issues as well. Borden said the only licensed day care available now is for daytime on weekdays — nothing for evening or weekends.

“We just need extended hours, not necessarily 24 hours,” he said, noting that a previous 24-hour operation did not succeed.

Riley said the shift for office staff at Newmont starts at 6 a.m., so day care that begins at 7 a.m. doesn’t work for them. The daycare committee is trying to figure out what the needs are and how those can be accommodated, she said.

If dirt starts flying on these projects in the coming weeks, there also will be an influx of construction workers. Most, project managers say, will come from the Front Range and will likely commute daily.

That brings its own problem: the high cost of construction in the mountain town.

“Getting workers is a challenge,” said Eric Rose, general manager of Century Casinos. “It costs more to build in Cripple Creek for numerous reasons.”

Canfora said the building boom in Colorado Springs will make it more difficult and expensive. He said he is exploring sharing a general contractor with another casino.

“If we work together as a community, we can make sure it’s successful for Cripple Creek,” he said.

Gray said that because most of the projects are in-fill, he believes the infrastructure can accommodate them. But the construction management plans will be crucial to limit noise, dust and other impacts on the town.

“It’s going to be very busy,” he said.

The kids’ ice slide at the Cripple Creek Ice Festival on Feb. 12, 2018. (Sue McMillin, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Beyond casinos

While there seems to be widespread support for the casino hotel projects, many in Cripple Creek want people to know it’s much more than a gambling town.

That’s where development and marketing of outdoor activities, family attractions, heritage attractions, shopping and dining come in.

Shop owner Shannon Dionese said casino visitors often do not stroll around town. A woman who recently came into his shop, The Little Store and Something More, told him she’d been taking a bus to the casinos for years but never knew there were shops.

Although he is moving his shop, renamed The Scarlet Moon, to Old Colorado City at the end of the month, he said the expansion plans will likely help Cripple Creek. “But it’s going to take awhile.”

Popular events such as the annual Cripple Creek Ice Festival and Donkey Derby Days attract thousands of people — for a day. Shopkeepers say those events keep them afloat and they’d like to see more.

There’s still a summer tourism emphasis, when the train, mine tours and weekend trolley tours by the Victorian Society help bolster the town. And the famed Butte Theatre melodrama shows run from May until Christmas.

But those attract mostly daytrip visitors, so there’s a cry for packaging marketing to get people to stay.

“For everyone to be truly successful, to become the destination that people see when they come over that hill, there are a lot of pieces,” Kitzman said. “We need nice hotel rooms, spas and amenities to get people to stay. Others need to create these other attractions. Then we can be a thriving destination.”

Wildwood Casino just opened a standalone Daylight Donut shop on Bennett Avenue. It also owns the Gas N’ Roll gas station and convenience store on the east side of town. Most restaurants in town are buried deep inside the casinos; Ralf’s Break Room is independently owned, as is the tiny Pioneer Subs and Take & Bake Pizza (but with a  drive through) on the west end of town.

Kitzman said he’s talked to several people who are interested in opening a brewery or distillery, but the issue is finding a building. Small businesses can’t afford huge renovation costs of old buildings, and there isn’t much readily useable space available in the downtown area.

Several buildings across from the Double Eagle Casino and Hotel in the 400 block of East Bennett Avenue stand empty — and in need of significant restoration. But the owner, Judith Rutherford through Crystal/Rutherford Enterprises LLC, seems to have little interest in renting or restoring the property, officials and others say. She may be willing to sell, but at exorbitant prices.

Her business entity owns 55 properties in Cripple Creek and one in Victor (the former Masonic Lodge), according to the Teller County Assessor’s site. The registered agent for the business, Woodland Park attorney Bart DePalma, said he represents Rutherford for some things but does not work with the properties. He said he would forward an emailed interview request to her; there has been no response.

She purchased 36 properties between 2002 and 2004 and none from 2007 through 2013. She has purchased 16 properties from 2014 to 2018. Many are vacant lots; some are rundown homes, and a handful are commercial buildings, including those on Bennett Avenue.

City officials tread cautiously when asked about Rutherford and say they are trying to work with her. She lists an address in Half Moon Bay, California.

“She is a problem,” Freeman said. “You can’t get anybody into these buildings, and she puts a ridiculous price on them. It makes an entire block look terrible.”

Melching, too, criticized her purchase of properties, including an old church, that she has let sit.

“We’ve got houses with nobody living in them that she owns,” he said. “Part of the problem that Cripple Creek has is this eccentric who owns a lot of buildings.”

Private land ownership also has stymied building extensive trail systems in the district, including the Ring the Peak Trail, which remains unfinished through Gillette Flats.

City officials, though, are undaunted by the challenges.

Discussions are under way on development of a Ring the Gold Camp or Gold Camp loop trail that would connect Victor and Cripple Creek and tie into the Ring the Peak Trail. There are ideas about climbing tours and standup paddle boarding at nearby Skagway Reservoir.

The city Parks and Recreation Department last year opened Mountain Adventure Park, which has an 18-hole disc golf course, sledding hill, dog park and BMX track.  Parks Director Connie Dodrill said it’s been popular but more events are needed to attract more people.

The town has new basketball, volleyball and pickleball courts and offers a wide range of fitness activities and sports for residents. Dodrill would love to develop an outdoor app to direct people to the many things — mostly free — that are available.

She’s one of many natives who left and returned after working elsewhere.

“I’m hopeful,” she said. “If we have renewed prosperity, I would like to see new attractions. I would love to see a zipline from the Heritage Center to town — but we can’t go over the highway.

“There’s so much potential up here. We have a wealth of history and it’s beautiful.”

Kitzman concurs.

“We can fundamentally change the visitor experience in Cripple Creek and Victor,” he said. “I’ve never been anywhere that has more untapped potential.”

The projects

Bronco Billy’s

What: 300,000-square-foot expansion with 150-200 hotel rooms, outdoor pool, parking garage, spa, and event center for up to 600 people

Cost: $70 million

Timing: Plans approved; break ground on parking garage in first quarter of 2019 with completion in 10-12 months; followed by phase two with completion in 18-24 months

Century Casinos

What: Renovation and addition to Palace Hotel at Bennett Avenue and Second Street, which would add 30-55 hotel rooms.

Cost: Not released

Timing: Seeking Certificate of Appropriateness from city Historic Preservation Commission in first quarter of 2019

Triple Crown

What: 140,000-square-foot expansion with 150-room hotel adjacent to Brass Ass Casino, upscale rooftop restaurant, ballroom, convention/meeting space and other amenities

Cost: $30 million to $40 million

Timing: ASAP, although spring groundbreaking “might be optimistic”

Wildwood Casinos

What: 3½-story, 100-room hotel with rooftop deck adjacent to existing casino and other renovations

Cost: Not released

Timing: Finalizing plans for presentation to the city in first quarter of 2019; plan to break ground this spring with completion in about 15 months

Source: Casino owners and managers


Sue McMillin is a longtime Colorado editor and reporter currently based in Cañon City.