The Cripple Creek City Council has approved a $70 million plan to expand Bronco Billy's, overcoming opposition from the casino's three largest competitors.
Owners of the Century, Wildwood and Triple Crown casinos had argued that the glass-and-steel exterior of Bronco Billy's project - which includes a six-story, 200-room hotel, a conference center and parking garage - wouldn't blend with the brick facades of the city's 12 gaming establishments, many of which are historic buildings.
Planning and Community Development Director Bill Gray said Full House Resorts - owner of Bronco Billy's - submitted its proposal under the guidelines of a Project of Special Merit ordinance, which has existed in city code since 1991 but has never been used.
Provisions in the ordinance allow for new construction as long as the designs are compatible with the city's 19th-century architecture.
Full House Resorts attorney Carolynne White said the word "compatible" is key; the ordinance specifically states the intent is not to construct reproductions of 19th-century buildings but to encourage construction that complements existing architecture.
A small but significant group of residents had worried about the plan's deviation from the city's historic preservation ordinance. Many were conflicted because of the potential positives the development would bring to a town that has struggled and stagnated in its economic growth.
"I'm conflicted because it's a great project, but I don't think the design stays true to the heart and soul of Cripple Creek," said Timothy Braun, a Cripple Creek businessman and former Historic Preservation Commission member.
Braun's main concern was the mirrored glass and metal incorporated into the design. Braun and others stated that by approving a "project of special merit" designation, Full House Resorts would be the recipient of "a special pass" on an "unfair playing field."
Prior to Wednesday meeting and council vote, Triple Crown CEO Larry Hill had argued that the designation would largely exempt Bronco Billy's from rules "everyone else has had to follow."
"They are proposing to build a Las Vegas- or Black Hawk-style casino in Cripple Creek," Hill said. "To have mirrored glass, steel and concrete is not what anyone wants in Cripple Creek."
Since 1991, the gaming town has tried to stay true to its historic preservation mandate, struggling to become more than just a gambling destination relying upon casino tax revenue.
Dan Lee, CEO of Full House Resorts, said the city's intrinsic character as a historic mining town with majestic views is a draw that has not seen its full potential.
Lee said he believes the redevelopment project will take Cripple Creek to the next level as a tourist destination.
About 1.5 million people visit the town each year, he said, but there are only enough rooms for 15 percent of those visitors to spend the night. Lee said the average visitor to Cripple Creek gambles for about three hours, then leaves, contributing little to retail, dining or entertainment revenues. As a result, he said, gaming makes up more than half of the city's total economy, with few other resources.
Lee said guests stay longer in other casino towns, and have more entertainment and hotel options. Those cities' economies are based mostly on non-gaming revenue, he said.
Although the expansion will be mostly non-gaming space, Lee said city tax revenue is expected to increase by $1.8 million, a 17.5 percent increase. Lee anticipates the construction project alone would add more than $600,000 in Teller County property taxes and 300 to 400 new jobs.
Construction is planned in two phases, with work starting on the parking garage this summer and the hotel in the first half of next year. Opening is planned in 2020.
Gazette business reporter Wayne Heilman contributed to this story.