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Gazette Premium Content Cripple Creek looks to return of gamblers, tourists

By Ned Hunter Updated: May 20, 2013 at 8:37 am

Someone screamed. Red lights flashed. And a crowd gathered around the man celebrating in front of the Wildwood Casino slot machines that chimed victory.

At 10:30 p.m. that Saturday, the man won a black $45,000 Audi A4 after dropping about five coins into the slot machine.

Nearly 10 hours earlier, a worried, white-haired woman walked across Cripple Creek's Bennett Avenue to tell her husband the "horrible" news: Their friend had lost $500 in a casino across the street.

"I don't know how she is going to afford that," the woman said.

Such are the ups and downs of gambling, not just for the players, but casino owners, the town of Cripple Creek and state gaming taxes. After more than six years of flat revenues, Cripple Creek officials and casino owners believe 2013 could be the year gamblers and tourists return to slot machines and gaming tables, adding needed revenue to a city that depends almost entirely on gambling.

Cripple Creek saw a slight year-over-year increase in gaming revenues last year for the first time since 2004, albeit only a half percent. While gaming revenues fell 5.3 percent in the first quarter of 2013 vs. a year earlier, casino owners and town officials believe the stable economy, a better housing market and pent-up demand for fun and travel will drive gamblers back to casinos.

"People have put off traveling and buying things and having fun for a long time," said Jim Druck, owner of Big Jim's Gambling Hall and Saloon. "And they are ready to start getting out again."

Druck is optimistic because his patrons' attitudes have turned positive.

"The stories they are telling me about their personal lives are happier now," Druck said. "They are not as worried."

Consequences of crisis

The number of visitors to Cripple Creek began to fall after the national financial crisis in 2008.

That year, at least 65,772 people visited Cripple Creek, according to Steph Hilliard, manager of the Cripple Creek Heritage Center. By the end of 2012, that number had fallen nearly 35 percent to 42,984.

"There has been nothing but a steady slow decline since 2008," Hilliard said.

That decline directly affected gaming revenues.

The amount gamblers dropped in Cripple Creek slot machines and on table games in 2012 totaled just under $2 billion, according to city finance records. That was down 21.4 percent from 2007, when gamblers spent more than $2.5 billion.

Gaming revenues make up 66 percent of the town's fiscal-year budgets - 42 percent comes from device fees while another 24 percent comes from gaming taxes. The decline in revenue forced local lawmakers to eliminate $1.8 million from the 2012 fiscal-year budget, forced the delay of a planned Parks and Recreation building expansion.

"We have already absorbed basically a 19 percent reduction from one of the better performing years," said Ray White, city administrator. "To look at absorbing beyond a 20 percent reduction, we would definitely have to look at the impact on our overall programs and availability to provide services."

But casino owners are doubly upbeat about last year's slight rise in revenues since the Waldo Canyon fire cut into gaming revenues for nearly an entire month, said Marc Murphy, general manager of Bronco Billy's. The fire shut down U.S. Highway 24, keeping people away from the city.

"When your main thoroughfare is closed, it has a tremendously huge impact on business," Murphy said.

Cripple Creek's prime tourist season runs mid-May to October, he said. There are around 500 hotel rooms in Cripple Creek, 350 of those owned by the casinos. Murphy said his summer hotel bookings already are higher than last year.

Kevin Werner, vice president and general manager of the Wildwood Casino, thinks he'll have little trouble keeping his 67-room hotel full this summer. Werner feels the casinos are actually doing better than expected. That's because in 2009, Cripple Creek introduced craps, roulette and 24-hour gaming. Werner said money from those games helped maintain yearly revenue levels that otherwise would have fallen farther.

His casino has 520 slot machines, 5 poker tables, 11 black jack tables, two craps table and a roulette wheel. Wildwood will celebrate its fifth year this month by giving away $5,000 on May 31, June 1, and 2. The money will be awarded through "Hot-Seat" and random drawings.

"We feel like we have been through the worst of it," Werner said, "and we are starting to see more traffic."

Shuttles and smoking

Angie Pano has spent her April birthday in Cripple Creek the past five years. This year, her sister and mom, Sarah and Lori Pano, joined her. Pano, of Englewood, prefers Cripple Creek over Black Hawk because of its historic flavor. Walking north on Bennett Avenue, building facades mimic those of the late 1800s.

Bennett Avenue is only seven blocks long, but the time spent walking from one casino to another reduces patron gambling times.

That's one reason the city is implementing the Cripple Creek Express, which will stop anywhere along Bennett Avenue, said Maria Cunningham, the city's marketing and events manager. The shuttle could also help casino revenues by lessening the time gamblers spend walking streets instead of gambling. The Cripple Creek Express is in addition to the shuttles already provided by each casino, Cunningham said.

The service is scheduled to start late summer. The casinos are helping fund the cost of the shuttle with the city, Cunningham said.

"Bennett is a high traffic corridor with a lot of activity," she said, "and we need to make sure visitors can access anywhere they want to go."

Cripple Creek started the Gold Camp Connector this month. The connector is a shuttle service to and from the town of Victor, about six miles south of the gambling town, Cunningham said.

While the economy is improving, there are other hurdles Cripple Creek still must overcome. The 2008 smoking ban continues to hurt revenues after casinos, which were originally exempt from the ban, were included later. Many gamblers smoke, said Murphy from Bronco Billy's. When they leave for cigarette breaks, it takes time away from gambling.

"The ban had a huge impact on the industry," Murphy said. "You can still see the effect in Cripple Creek."

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Contact Ned Hunter: 636-0275.

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