Upbeat outlook has Cripple Creek investing

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Crowds were so large for the Cripple Creek Ice Festival that organizers are planning to spread it farther down Bennett Avenue.

Crowds were so large for the Cripple Creek Ice Festival that organizers are planning to spread it farther down Bennett Avenue.

With gambling numbers improving and a pervasive sense of hopefulness, Cripple Creek is beginning to make bigger investments in itself.

“I think we’re all cautiously optimistic,” said Maria Cunningham, marketing and events manager for the historic Teller County town.

Cripple Creek casino revenue ticked up 0.5 percent year-over-year in 2012, which was a good sign. And most casino operators refuse to give up their hopeful attitude despite a 5.3 percent revenue drop in the first quarter, blaming more snowy and cold days than in 2012.

That careful optimism is playing out through subtle and necessary improvements now — with the option to build on them in the near future.

From individual casinos to the city and hotels, some major investments are planned for the little old mining town turned gambling spot about an hour into the mountains west of Colorado Springs.

“A lot of the investments the casinos have made in the last couple years have probably not been the fun ones,” Cunningham said.

Larry Hill, CEO of Triple Crown Casinos, which owns The Brass Ass, Midnight Rose and JP McGills Hotel and Casino, says he’s put $1 to $3 million into his casinos every year since the recession started. But most of those improvements have been essentials such as a new roof and updated HVAC system — which don’t add extra enticement for guests but keep the 100-plus-year-old casino buildings in good working order.

“I think we’re going to wait and see how this summer goes,” Hill said.

If it’s good, bigger investments are on the horizon.

Ahead of the game

Ben Douglass, assistant general manager at Bronco Billy’s, said his casino already is making some of those more visible improvements. It remodeled an old poker room between its second-floor restaurants, creating a lounge with live music on weekend nights.

“It’s something for people to do when they’re not gambling,” Douglass said. “Most people come up with a set amount they’re willing to spend. If they do that in the first half-hour and they’ve driven all the way up here, they’re looking for something else.”

And something simple like a live band and cocktails could be the key to helping people go home happy from Cripple Creek.

Bronco Billy’s also plans to tear down a vacant building next door, while retaining the façade, and expand its table games.

“We’ve owned the Jahn’s Jewelers building for five to 10 years, and we’ve just been sitting on it, “ Douglass said. “The original plan called for two floors.”

The expansion could have happened in 2009 after Amendment 50 passed, raising table game limits from $5 to $100 and allowing casinos to operate 24 hours a day. But the recession forced those plans to the back burner. And while the expansion is finally happening, it’s more modest than originally planned — one story instead of two, and 78 feet long instead of the 125 feet allowed.

The new building will be rated so the casino can build additional floors on top of it, Douglass said. But the ownership decided to start small. The expansion, with five blackjack tables and 25 new slot machines, should open within a year. That will more than double the number of Bronco Billy’s blackjack tables, Douglass said, explaining that it’s the most popular table game in Cripple Creek.

The expansion will also allow the casino to spread out some slot machines and relieve overcrowding, Douglass said.

Marketing together

While not a capital investment, the casinos and Cripple Creek’s city government have partnered for the first time in a significant marketing campaign.

Bronco Billy’s always does a lot of print advertising and has increased its radio ads, though Douglass said, “We don’t typically do TV advertisements because of cost.”

But this year is different. The city and casinos are matching each other dollar for dollar in a $240,000 TV ad campaign. For the city or an individual casino, TV ads are too much, Cunningham said. But a series of ads, some featuring one casino at a time and others promoting Cripple Creek as a whole, are showing in Pueblo and Colorado Springs. The ads are targeted at demographics most likely to travel within the state and most likely to gamble.

That could help give summer tourism an extra boost, Cunningham said. Summer is Cripple Creek’s bread and butter. A typical winter weekend might bring about 9,000 people to town. But there are 25,000 on a summer weekend day, Cunningham said.

During major events, which the city organizes, that number can swell even larger. The Cripple Creek Ice Festival, one of the biggest draws, lured 65,000 people in February.

“We had traffic backed up to Woodland Park,” she said.

It was such a hit the city decided to expand the event next winter and will give ice artists an extra block on Bennett Avenue, the main drag through town.

City improvements

While Cripple Creek is partnering with casinos to bring people to town, it’s also in a position to improve infrastructure and services.

This summer, Cripple Creek started running a shuttle through town and to Victor with a state grant. Come fall, a shuttle just for Bennett Avenue will relieve some casinos from running their own shuttles.

“It can get pretty expensive to have a shuttle going when no one is riding it,” Douglass said. Working with the city will allow casinos to consolidate and share the expense of transporting patrons.

Cripple Creek also just took over management of Bennett Avenue from the state and received a $2.6 million grant to manage the road. That cash infusion could mean big things. The city is replacing street lamps with light-emitting diodes (LEDs) for energy efficiency, and is evaluating other infrastructure with improvements likely to begin in the fall.

But the really ambitious part of the Bennett Avenue project won’t start until next year, Cunningham said. The city has earmarked money to widen the sidewalks.

“In my imagination there will be flower pots and fire pits and outdoor dining,” she said. “Even if it’s just basic, wider sidewalks could make a huge difference.”

She says it’s possible the sidewalks could be as wide as 19 feet depending on how they’re engineered. That would give casinos plenty of space to add outdoor dining and create a more welcoming, festive atmosphere.

Some of Cunningham’s other ideas — like fire pits — might not fit the town’s historic character. But wider sidewalks likely will add to the curb appeal.

“I don’t know when Cripple Creek ever did a big overhaul like this,” she said.

Hotel plans

The one thing most casino operators will say they need is more hotel rooms.

Bronco Billy’s owners bought and renovated a nearby hotel, increasing it from eight rooms to 10. The owners of the Imperial Hotel have renovated eight rooms and hope to finish four more by the end of June.

“Cripple Creek is not a destination resort town,” Hill said. “It’s a drive market. The reason it’s a drive market is that there are not enough hotel rooms.”

There are 470 rooms now in Cripple Creek, Cunningham said.

“If I had all the money in the world, that whole block would be hotels,” she said.

Hill said the average occupancy rate now is about 65 percent, really good for a seasonal city with a lot of weekend traffic.

“You’re hard-pressed to find a place if you come up here on a weekend night,” he said. “Weeknights, you’re usually OK.”

But the weekend and summer business should justify more rooms, and more rooms might change the way people spend time in Cripple Creek.

A hotel expansion is at the top of Hill’s list of investments he hopes to make soon.

“It’s not going to be this year,” he said. “We have to see continued improvement in the economy and business levels. We need to see Colorado Springs-Pueblo get stronger first.”