CRIPPLE CREEK - The block between Golden Avenue and Pikes Peak Avenue in this historic mining town used to be the favorite hangout for the local herd of wild donkeys. Now, it's home to an imposing palace of brick, wood and steel.
Big, modern and gleaming, the Wildwood Casino may be the future of this town rooted in the past.
The $80 million project is the first thing visitors see as they enter the Historic District on Colorado Highway 67 from the north. When the Wildwood opens later this week, it will add nearly 700 slot machines, three restaurants and five floors of covered parking to a gambling economy that has staggered in recent months.
Cripple Creek casino revenues fell for the fourth straight month in April as a smoking ban, rising gas prices and rough winter weather took their toll. Interest in the new casino could be a boon that lifts the fortunes of the entire town, or its opening could slice that shrinking pie into even smaller portions.
"The dreams of a lot of people are coming to fruition," said Eddie Lynn, vice president and general manager for American Gaming Group, who has overseen the project since its inception. Now, Lynn is handing over the operations of the casino to general manager Kevin Werner.
While the Wildwood isn't as lavish as a Las Vegas casino, it's quite a change from the existing Cripple Creek casinos, mostly built in century-old storefronts along Bennett Avenue. It looks much more like the big, glitzy casinos of Black Hawk. And Black Hawk is just what American Gaming officials had in mind with the project, citing studies that showed Cripple Creek was losing $14 million a year in business because of customers who preferred Black Hawk's casinos.
"We believe we can bring, on a smaller scale, what the larger casinos brought to Black Hawk in recent years," Paul "Sonny" Marshall, American Gaming's chief executive officer, told The Gazette in 2007.
"Smaller scale" is a relative term, at least compared with everything else in town. Cripple Creek Mayor Dan Baader also served as the construction supervisor on the Wildwood. And it was a big, big project, he said.
"To me, it was like being in a shipyard, building the USS Enterprise," Baader said.
What remains to be seen is what Wildwood will mean for the casinos on Bennett Avenue. Will it bring in new customers, from Black Hawk or elsewhere, or will it cannibalize Cripple Creek's existing customer base?
"We'd like to think it's going to be positive and grow the market," said David Minter, owner and general manager of Johnny Nolon's Casino. "History does not necessarily show that that's what's going to happen."
Minter has worked in Cripple Creek since 1992, arriving nine months after gambling was legalized here. The Wildwood is the biggest thing to hit the town, he said, since the Double Eagle Hotel and Casino opened in 1996. And the Wildwood's hundreds of slots will bring the total number of machines in the city to more than 5,000 for the first time.
"I've certainly been through it before in town," Minter said. "It's like any other business - the strong competitors will probably survive and the weak ones will struggle."
That competition will only make Cripple Creek a more attractive destination, Werner said.
"Competition is a great thing," Werner said. "Everybody's freshening up their casinos. Everybody will increase their quality level and we'll all make money."
And then there's the economy, gas prices and the smoking ban. In March, Cripple Creek casinos saw their biggest year-to-year monthly drop in revenue in history - 16.7 percent - and April's drop was the second biggest, 13.3 percent.
"The market's been harsh so far this year," said Mike Hirsch, general manager for the Gold Rush Hotel and Casino. "I'm sure they're just as concerned as we are. They have a lot of money invested in that building."
The Wildwood may change Cripple Creek in other ways as well. Although it's just two blocks west of Bennett Avenue, a mostly older clientele combined with the city's 9,494-foot elevation, means customers will probably take a shuttle rather than walk between the new casino and existing establishments.
"We're not quite sure how it will work," said Mike Chaput, general manager at Bronco Billy's Casino. "The center of the town has historically been the hub of the town for 150 years."
Cripple Creek has always reveled in its mining past and historic buildings. The Wildwood's architecture certainly gives a nod to the Victorian homes, mining shacks and brick buildings around it, but it's a distinctly modern design.
"It definitely does have a different look and a different feel," Chaput said. "I'm not sure how people will respond to that."
That different style doesn't end with the exterior.
The Wildwood puts all its gaming in one 19,246-square-foot space at the building's center. Although the Triple Crown casinos - J.P. McGills, the Midnight Rose and the Brass Ass - together have slightly more slot machines, they're spread through several buildings. American Gaming believes Wildwood's single floor gives it an advantage.
Slot machines dominate the big room, but a large, central space is devoted to poker and blackjack tables. With Colorado's $5 limit, Werner said the table games aren't big moneymakers, but you can't have a casino without them.
"The table games are part of what we do," he said. "It's part of our culture."
Those tables could be an advantage for the Wildwood if either Initiative 121 or 122 succeeds this fall.
Both would allow gambling towns to raise the limits to $100, add roulette and craps to the mix.
In addition to the tables and slots, the Wildwood will be home to three restaurants: the upscale Mavericks at the building's west end, the Fireside Kitchen, a deli-style casual spot on the east side, and next to it the Saddle Bar, a bar and grill.
"One of the things we'll focus on is being more than just a casino," Werner said. "We're perfectly happy to have a guest come in, eat in our restaurants and walk out saying ‘I had a great meal.'"
When American Gaming proposed the project 2½ years ago, the smoking ban was nowhere in sight, the economy was healthy and gas was in the mid-$2 range.
No problem, Werner said. The Wildwood will open its doors and take its chances.
"There's no turning back now," he said. "Good economy, bad economy, we're here."
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