In May, Cripple Creek Mayor Dan Baader abruptly announced his resignation, packed up and moved to California.
Locals had voted him into office in 2007, and since then Baader had always been happy to give bullish sermons on the importance of protecting the town's casino business. For Baader, it was personal: An employee of California-based PW Construction, he served as construction superintendent for the $80 million Wildwood Casino, which opened in 2008. And Baader was betting on more growth.
But that hasn't come. In fact, there was more work for Baader in the famously struggling Golden State.
The former mayor couldn't be reached, but his appointed replacement, Mayor Bruce Brown, says the mountain town's continuing slump has surprised everyone.
"After Amendment 50, we were hoping it was going to be a little busier," Brown says. "But everything's pretty much gone down with the economy."
Amendment 50, which went into effect last summer, was supposed to increase gambling in Colorado by allowing casinos to raise wager limits from $5 to $100, add craps and roulette games, and operate 24 hours a day, with local approval. In turn, casinos would pay more taxes to the state, largely to fund community colleges. Cripple Creek voters made the changes official with great fanfare.
But a year later, little has changed. Casino owners say they see some younger faces — largely drawn by roulette and craps — visiting a town known for attracting retirees. But the extra revenue produced by a few new visitors hasn't been enough to make up for the increased costs that come with longer hours and a greater variety of games. Casino revenues are flat or down.
"We were affected by the smoking ban, higher gas prices and most significantly a recession like no other," Wildwood general manager Kevin Werner notes in an e-mail.
Most financial experts say the best way to judge a casino town's health is not profits, but how much people are spending on games — the "coin-in" measurement. From that perspective, Cripple Creek's last year of growth was 2004. And this year started miserably, with "coin-in" down 7.3 percent year-to-date through March.
Adjusted gross proceeds (net revenue) have also fallen in Cripple Creek as compared to a year ago; March 2010 was down 4.3 percent compared to March 2009. During the same time, Black Hawk (with 73.6 percent of the Colorado gaming market) increased its AGP 6.6 percent, and Central City 4.2 percent.
Black Hawk clearly has benefited from Amendment 50. Its market is so hot, mountains are being blasted to bits to make room for bigger, fancier casinos like the recently opened $300 million, 33-story Ameristar Casino-Hotel.
Cripple Creek finance director Paul Harris notes that Black Hawk has the advantage of being close to Denver. What's more, he says, Black Hawk has ignored state laws mandating historic preservation in gambling towns, while Cripple Creek locals value maintaining the town's old-timey character — which probably hasn't helped it compete for gambling dollars.
Black Hawk isn't the only competitor. Bronco Billy's Casino co-owner Mike Chaput notes that competition is coming from out-of-state now, too.
"As opposed to 20 years ago, right now almost all the states have some kind of gaming," he says.
Yet, Chaput and other casino owners say they're hopeful this summer will bring better business. And they're still thankful Amendment 50 passed. It may not have helped, but it certainly hasn't hurt.
Says David Minter, owner and manager of Johnny Nolon's Casino: "I think having craps and roulette has added something to the town."