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Taking bets on gambling: Several Colorado communities consider gaming to revive economies

By: garrison wells - the gazette
March 9, 2014 Updated: March 10, 2014 at 10:32 am
photo - Roulette trainer for the Wildwood Casino, Mike Davis teaches some customers how to play roulette days before higher stakes for the game go into effect in Colorado. Thursday, June 25, 2009. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)
Roulette trainer for the Wildwood Casino, Mike Davis teaches some customers how to play roulette days before higher stakes for the game go into effect in Colorado. Thursday, June 25, 2009. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett) 

If a fledgling Colorado group led by a Rhode Island company has its way, gambling in Colorado will expand to Arapahoe, Pueblo and Mesa counties.

- Other moves are afoot to expand gaming on the Western Slope, and in Trinidad it's getting consideration. - Already rising as a mecca for marijuana, the growth of limited stakes gambling could be the next big issue for Colorado voters to consider

- possibly in November if a pair of initiatives make it onto the ballot. - One group that has been opposed to expanding gaming in Colorado is reconsidering.

- "If communities in southern Colorado vote to go into gambling casinos, we would look at supporting it," said Cathy Garcia, president of Action 22, a regional lobbying group for southern Colorado. - "Times have changed," she said. "The whole state may say 'since we have marijuana, let's go all the way.'?"

There are opponents, chief among them the Colorado Gaming Association.

For them, it's a turf war.

The association represents the casinos in Cripple Creek, Black Hawk and Central City.

"This is just another attempt for the racetracks to become casinos," said Lois Rice, executive director of the Colorado Gaming Association. "We're opposed because the way the initiative is written it gives the owner of Arapahoe Park a five-year monopoly on Front Range gaming in Colorado."

Another objection is that the casinos "would be giant, Las Vegas-style casinos," Rice said.

The minimum size for a casino, according to the initiative, is 2,500 slot machines. The largest casino in the state is Ameristar Casino Resort Spa Black Hawk in Black Hawk, which has 1,500 slot machines, Rice said.

"We're not against expansion, but we want any company that is coming into Colorado to follow the same rules that we follow," she said.

The effort has had an impact on the state's casinos.

Monarch Casino Black Hawk was planning to add a hotel and spa, Rice said, "but they have put their expansion plans on hold until they see what happens with this initiative."

According to the association, gaming in Colorado's first 20 years paid more than $1.3 billion in gaming taxes. The money paid for programs such as historic preservation and bioscience development.

From 1992 to 2012, El Paso County received about $10 million through 147 historical preservation grants.

Pikes Peak Community College got almost $3 million from Community College Funding from fiscal years 2011 to 2013, the association said.

Backing the effort to expand gaming in Colorado is Twin River Worldwide Holdings Inc., a Rhode Island company that owns Mile High Racing and Entertainment, which runs Arapahoe Park Racetrack. It also owns Twin River Casino in Lincoln, R.I.

Threatening that casino's revenue is a decision by Massachusetts gaming officials to build a slots parlor and three casinos.

The Colorado effort "will be managed at the local level," said Patti Doyle, Twin River spokeswoman. "But we always knew we would look at opportunities outside of the market to continue to strengthen our position and to mitigate any potential losses that might come in Massachusetts."

The question to Colorado voters would be: "Would they be in favor of expansion of gaming at a facility that already has wagering. That's a question we thought there is value in putting to the Colorado voters," Doyle said.

Two measures have been submitted to the Colorado Secretary of State's Office to allow slots, table games and video lottery terminals at the Aurora racetrack and "two future horse racetracks" in Pueblo and Mesa counties.

The bargaining chip is 34 percent of profits that would go to K-12, according to a proposed initiative.

"Other states have expanded gaming, and Colorado voters have passed limited gaming," said Monica McCafferty, spokeswoman for the effort. "This is a measure that would essentially be a new revenue source for K-12 education in a way that would expand gaming responsibly at locations that historically have some type of footprint or have horse tracks."

The campaign, she said, "will be supported by a broad coalition of diverse interests. We are currently in the process of forming the issue committee and building out the coalition."

Education wouldn't be the only beneficiary.

The community with a casino would receive 2 percent of the profits.

The community would also get $10 million in up-front fees, and the state would receive $25 million.

That money shows that this is a "long-term commitment," McCafferty said.

"Both measures provide that Arapahoe Park Horse Racetrack, which already has wagering on horse races, pay an up-front fee of $25 million to the state in addition to the approximately $100 million every year in new state revenue projected to be generated by new gaming. That money will be dedicated to K through 12 education and administered through a newly established fund, which will protect it from being used for other purposes," said former state Sen. Bob Hagedorn, who along with former state Rep. Vickie Armstrong filed the initiatives.

Each measure would permit expanded gaming at one racetrack in Pueblo County and one racetrack in Mesa County, neither of which has a horse track now, according to a news release. The counties would qualify to apply for expanded gaming when they have had a licensed and approved horse racetrack that includes wagering in operation for five years.

In Pueblo, one potential site would be the greyhound park at the Southern Colorado Gaming & Event Center.

Craig Law, owner and manager of the event center, said gambling is allowed through off-track betting with Arapahoe Park. Arapahoe Park also offers off-track betting in Colorado Springs at Post Time.

Off-track betting is popular, and a casino "definitely would play well," he said. "I think Pueblo is kind of a gambling community. It's another form of entertainment."

Benefits would include a boost to sales tax, ancillary businesses, construction jobs and employment, he said.

"There's no better time to get out there," Law said. "It would be an infusion, and I think Pueblo really needs it."

In Mesa County, a potential landing spot for a horse track and casino is Grand Junction.

A key consideration, said Diane Schwenke, president of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, is whether the local community makes the decision.

"As long as it's up to the local residents, the local leadership," she said. "That's of paramount importance to us."

The chamber hasn't taken a stance but will look into the ballot measure, she said.

"The Western Slope has not seen the economic recovery that the rest of the state has," Schwenke said. "So we're looking at diversifying beyond the energy base. It's important that we look at all options, and this is one we will look at."

At one time, Grand Junction had a horse track, but "there are just parts of that track that are still there," she said.

"Any activity in Mesa County would require a substantial investment in new construction," Schwenke said.

The chamber also will take a look at the impact of a proposal to bring gambling to De Beque, about a 40-minute drive from Grand Junction.

"Our economies are very closely tied," she said. "We want to see what the citizens of De Beque want to do. We don't want to see something that is mandated from somewhere else."

Gaming also is under consideration in Trinidad, where City Manager Tom Acre said he will bring up the topic at the City Council retreat.

"There's been some talk locally about it," Acre said. "I haven't had a big discussion with City Council to say go ahead and pursue it, but we have a planning retreat next week, and I will likely be bringing it up."

The plethora of proposals has the town of Cripple Creek concerned.

Limited gaming is its lifeblood.

More than 80 percent of the town's budget comes from the casinos, said Paul Harris, finance director.

"It would be extremely difficult for all three of the gaming towns if the Front Range racetracks were to play," he said.

The town is in the midst of a $4.75 million project to improve Bennett Avenue, the town's main street that is flanked by casinos.

The project is set to start in mid-May, Harris said.

"We are always against expanded gaming in the state because of the economic impacts," he said. "It would be devastating to our main source of revenue to the community."

For state Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, it's also about the economy.

The former racehorse owner said the Western Slope is struggling, and most of the residents in the area travel to Las Vegas to gamble.

They also head to casinos in Santa Fe and a horse racing track in Farmington, N.M.

A horse track and casino in the area "would keep the money closer to home," he said.

Coram in 2012 carried a bill to expand horse racing and slots that failed. The message he got at the time from voters was that expansion should be a voter's initiative, he said.

"I was not a legal marijuana fan, but it is what it is," he said. "I think this is a more wholesome way of generating revenue. Recreational horse racing to me is more appealing than recreational pot."

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