When Coloradans voted in 1991 to allow gambling in three sleepy, semi-derelict mountain towns, they were encouraged to believe that "limited-stakes gaming" didn't really mean casino gambling.
What was proposed was just harmless fun, a few slot machines in the rear of a Cripple Creek antique store. 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 with a little family-friendly wickedness.
Such sentimental nonsense was quickly discarded. Outside 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.
Black Hawk quickly eclipsed Central City. Other than a handful of historic buildings, there was no there there — and plenty of room to build. Glitzy, Vegas-style casinos erupted, erasing most of the town that gambling revenues were supposed to revive.
In Cripple Creek, crumbling brick buildings along Bennett Avenue were gutted, expanded and/or joined together to create a picturesque gamblers row. Historic storefronts were preserved and restored, but the antique stores, restaurants and shops that once lined the streets eventually vanished, swept away by escalating property values and the growth of the gaming industry.
There was hopeful talk of building a regional airport near the town site of Gillett, a long-vanished boomtown north of Cripple Creek where America's first bullfight was staged in 1895. But the world changed. Cash-strapped governments joined with tax-averse voters to legalize casino gambling in many states. Cripple Creek's market shrunk as Native American casinos sprung up in southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico. The local gaming industry stagnated, despite voter-approved lifting of bet limits from $5 to $100 and adding table games such as roulette and blackjack in 2009.
During fiscal year 2003-2004, Cripple Creek casinos realized adjusted gross proceeds (AGP, the difference between total bets and total payouts) of $140.7 million from 4,806 gambling devices. In 2012-2013, the number of slots had fallen to 3,943 with 70 table games. Total AGP was $132.9 million.
Despite marketing campaigns that feature beautiful young people, the typical Cripple Creek gambler is a senior citizen, a conservative player on a limited budget. This will be Cripple Creek's 23rd summer of operations. Coming off two years of fire, flood and closures of U.S. 24, Cripple Creek is doubling down in an effort to revive the gaming mecca.
The city has launched a $4.5 million project to rebuild Bennett Avenue. City officials believe that the makeover will give the city some of the pedestrian- and business-friendly pizazz that Manitou Springs achieved with wider sidewalks, better traffic lanes, bump-outs and new road surfaces. Combining a more welcoming urban environment with an increased events menu will, they hope, increase summer tourist traffic.
If so, new visitors may be surprised by Bennett Avenue's down-home ambiance. Take the city's oldest casino, locally owned Bronco Billy's. Owners Marc Murphy and Mike Chaput have been in business for all of those 23 summers. Growing slowly over the years, Bronco Billy's is now one of the biggest casinos in town, with more than 700 slots and a dozen table games.
"We all have pretty much the same games, and your chances are pretty much the same everywhere, so it comes down to customer service," Chaput said in a 2008 interview. "Marc Murphy and I come from a hotel/restaurant background, not the casino industry, so that's what we're good at."
On a recent Saturday evening, Murphy was busy catering to his customers, even helping serve food in one of the casino's restaurants. And if you think casino owners are like Andy Garcia in Ocean's Eleven, strolling the casino floor in an Armani suit with Julia Roberts in tow, this is Cripple Creek.
Murphy, wearing an orange T-shirt (along with the rest of the employees) and black slacks, was clearing tables at the casino's steakhouse, taking the pressure off the busy staff.
"I do what needs to be done," he said later. "I enjoy it."
That energy has made Bronco Billy's a success. But what about Cripple Creek as a whole? We'll see whether the makeover can make a difference.