Unemployment, both nationally and regionally, has reached a 25 year high, as companies shed workers to adjust to the faltering economy.
Here in the Pikes Peak region, it’s hard to find businesses that are adding workers, anticipating higher sales, and looking forward to a profitable summer – unless you drive up to Cripple Creek.
Thanks to last fall’s voter-approved initiative, which loosened the state regulations which govern casino gambling in Colorado, the gaming industry expects that better days are ahead, despite a year that has seen casino revenue plummet, driven both by the worsening economy and by laws which mandate smoke-free establishments.
Under the original 1991 initiative, which legalized casino gambling in the mining towns of Central City, Blackhawk and Cripple Creek, bets were limited to $5, table games such as craps and roulette were forbidden, and casinos had to close between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m.
Now, those once-quiet mountain towns can, if casino operators so choose, become more like Las Vegas or Atlantic City.
Casinos can remain open all night, bet limits have been raised to $100 and table games are now legal.
“We’re hoping to get back to our pre-smoking ban level,” said Mike Chaput, who with Mark Murphy, owns and operates Bronco Billy’s, Cripple Creek’s largest casino. “This year, total revenue in Cripple Creek is actually up about 5 percent, but when Wildwood opened last year, they increased the number of machines in the market by about 15 percent, so everyone’s share has been diluted.”
Murphy said that every casino operator in Cripple Creek is planning to install table games, “and we’re no exception.”
Under the terms of last fall’s initiative, which required that voters in each of the three towns also approve the proposed regulatory changes, casinos can’t offer the new games, extend their hours or increase bet limits until July.
“The good news is that our industry already directly employs 1,500 people here in Cripple Creek,” Chaput said, “and the better news is that we’re hiring even more.”
Last week, Bronco Billy’s and other Cripple Creek casinos hosted a job fair in Colorado Springs.
“We were just stunned,” Chaput said. “Nearly 800 people showed up. We narrowed the field down to about 200, and we’re giving all of those folks a free 12-week course in how to be a croupier, and manage the table games. All of the applicants had similar stories – they’d been laid off, their employers were cutting back their hours, or they just couldn’t find jobs in their field. “
Will Cripple Creek customers who are used to the relaxed, homey atmosphere of today’s Bennett Avenue see radical changes? Will giant, glitzy establishments, similar to those in Blackhawk, overwhelm the renovated 19th century storefronts that line Cripple Creek’s main drag?
Chaput doesn’t think so.
“Blackhawk may be more successful financially,” he said, “but what we have in Cripple Creek is much more what the original initiative was about.”
The original initiative mandated that tax revenue from limited-stakes gambling be primarily used to pay for historic preservation, especially in the three mountain towns. The 2008 initiative directs that any “increased (tax) revenue” resulting from the new regulations be added to state support for the community college system.
“We’ll be open all night this summer, and we’ll have the table games, but I don’t see the new limits having much effect,” Murphy said. “We may have a few machines with higher limits – $10, maybe one or two $25, but $100 slots? I don’t think so. Even (in Las Vegas) those machines really don’t contribute that much to your revenue.”
But table games are another matter.
“We think they’ll do very well,” Murphy said.
Located in five adjacent historic buildings, Bronco Billy’s can’t easily accommodate the table games – so it’s removing 15 “devices” (i.e., video games and slot machines) to make room.
Judging from an informal survey of casino patrons, the table games should do well.
“I go to Vegas for the roulette,” said Jim Steadman, a retired city employee, who was playing the quarter video poker terminals at the Midnight Rose. “But I’d rather save money and stay close to home – or maybe I should say lose money close to home!”
Janet, a player at Colorado Grande, wouldn’t give her full name.
“My husband doesn’t like me to go up to Cripple in the afternoon, so I just don’t want to be in the paper,” she said. “But we’ll definitely try craps – it’s so exciting when there are lots of people playing, like in Vegas.”
Bronco Billy’s Bennett Avenue rival, Womack’s, also is ramping up for the introduction of table games.
“We’ll be ready to go on July 2,” said floor manger Mandy McNamara. “We’re bringing in craps and roulette, we’ll be open 24 hours, and we’re hiring more people. We’re also putting in some high-dollar devices.”
Although Bronco Billy’s and Womack’s have roughly the same number of slots and video poker games, Womack’s has a larger gaming floor.
“We’re not removing any devices,” she said, “We’re just adding the table games.”
Although the Gold Rush Casino is smaller than either Womack’s or Bronco Billy’s, it intends to compete aggressively.
“We’re hiring,” said marketing director John Elges, “And we’re doing our own training. … We’re bringing in a new manager to handle table games. As far as I know, all of the casinos, except maybe one or two of the smallest, will be bringing in table games. It’s a competitive necessity.
“And does it feel good to be in an industry that’s hiring?” he asked. “You bet!”