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The ramrod of Cripple Creek

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He stands at the bar inside Cripple Creek's fancy new Wildwood Casino, boasting that he's wearing a jacket and tie "for the first time in a year" to enjoy the grand opening.

He also fires off rounds of hot quotes, such as: "I don't care what anybody says the smoking ban in our casinos is going to cost us $30 million just in Cripple Creek. It's wrong, and we're gonna fight it."

His name is Dan Baader, and to know him is to know the personality of Cripple Creek these days. Baader, 59, has been the town's mayor since defeating incumbent Ed Libby last November by a slim 171-156 margin.

That hasn't stopped Baader from injecting his forceful, swaggering style into "cleaning up" the city government, even though it meant he "had to fire some people." He also has pushed new plans for upgrading the town's streets and infrastructure, which had been largely ignored despite the windfall of tax revenues since gambling's resurrection in 1991.

Baader moved to Cripple Creek several years ago and was construction superintendent for the ambitious Wildwood project, a $50 million casino with 678 slot machines and 14 tables. The new casino has its detractors, including some area residents. They wonder how the Wildwood can thrive on state Highway 67 entering town, several blocks away from Bennett Avenue and the other casinos.

On Bennett, people can easily walk from, say, the Imperial Hotel to the Double Eagle, Brass Ass or Bronco Billy's. A new shuttle will help gamblers go back and forth between Bennett and Wildwood, which also has underground parking for more than 500 vehicles.

Unlike several competitors, Wildwood doesn't have on-site hotel rooms, though the hilltop Gold King Mountain Inn is nearby. Wildwood's biggest draw might be its circular restaurant, Mavericks, which has classy woodwork and picture windows along with an upscale menu and a well-trained staff.

Though he supervised building the Wildwood, Baader doesn't want it to hurt the established casinos. In fact, he says, "I really love Bennett Avenue, and the Imperial is probably my favorite place."

As for early observations about the Wildwood: "There's a lot of buzz about people going there and having a good time," Baader says. "I also hear other people in town saying they are seeing a lot of new faces, and that's what we're hoping for."

Baader's main focus lately, however, has been trying to circumvent that smoking ban. Several casinos, with the mayor's full support, recently began allowing smoking again in areas classified as "cigar bars."

"I've talked to four newspapers, two TV stations and two radio stations this week," Baader said Tuesday. "I even got a phone call from Sen. Ken Gordon (the state Senate's Democratic majority leader), and Sen. Gordon was not a happy camper. He was pretty stern, but when I asked him about the bar up in Black Hawk that's doing the same thing, he acted like he didn't know about it. They're turning up the heat on us. Calls are coming in from all over the place."

Tuesday afternoon, Baader realized he couldn't simply ignore the outside world much as he wishes he could. He was concerned about the problem having a negative effect on others, starting with his police chief.

"I didn't want to put him in a bad light," Baader said, but he refused to follow the anti-smoking folks' suggestions and have police write tickets for everyone smoking in casinos. Baader's solution was to have Cripple Creek police issue tickets only to the managers of each casino permitting smoking.

"Then they can continue fighting it, if they want to, in court."

"I hope they win," Baader added. "I'd rather see the whole law thrown out. The way it's written, it's ambiguous."

Meanwhile, casinos are hurting and Cripple Creek's tax revenues have been down more than 14 percent since the smoking ban went into effect at the start of 2008, though high gas prices and the tough economy also have been factors.

That doesn't scare Baader. He sees better times ahead, which would start with smoking in casinos again, then perhaps higher stakes than the current $5 limit.

"What people need to know," Baader says, "is that we're ramping it up in Cripple Creek."

routon@csindy.com

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