Colorado Town Bets on Gambling - Tuesday 28th of July 2009

A 33-story hotel tower is rising here, in a little mountain town where anything taller than three or four stories in any direction for probably 30 miles would be safely in the skyscraper category. Call that what you will — audacious, ambitious, perhaps even a bit Freudian — the tower represents Black Hawk at its clattering, capitalistic, casino-driven heart.

The town, bolstered by a huge expansion of legal gambling that was approved by Colorado voters last fall as a constitutional amendment, and recently put into effect, is alive and pushing the frontier.

Some local politicians and residents say they think Black Hawk, with its big corporate casinos built beginning in the early 1990s, is poised to capitalize from the new gambling expansion, more than the two other towns that allow gambling — Central City, just down the road from here, and Cripple Creek in the southeast part of the state near Colorado Springs. Both of those towns are dominated by smaller casinos.

Already, the volume of bets and state taxes paid in Black Hawk is more than twice that of the other two towns combined. Around-the-clock wagering, and hundreds of new hotel rooms for sleepy gamblers, many people say, will only further that trend.

“It was put on the ballot by the big guys, and it’s going to work great for them,” said Ann Dodson, the general manager of the Famous Bonanza, a family-owned casino in Central City, housed in a 133-year-old former dry-goods building (and brothel in one past incarnation).

Ms. Dodson said she supported the gambling expansion, even though her business could not fully benefit from it. Her casino lacks the space or the staff to open any tables for craps, as the new law allows, she said, and without a hotel for guests to retire to, staying open past 2 a.m., or 3 a.m. would probably not pay.

“We’re evaluating,” Ms. Dodson said of the new rules, “and hoping to make it work.”

Historic preservation rules are also helping Black Hawk, which had 118 residents in the 2000 census, take advantage of the new law. Central City, for example, has a historic district that has kept its mining-town feel intact — with narrow, winding streets, Victorian-era buildings, and perhaps in consequence, a sometimes-tough search for parking. A 33-story, $235 million hotel tower, like the one being built in Black Hawk by Ameristar Casino, would be laughed out of the room by planning officials.

Black Hawk, by contrast, where fussy history rules were never applied, has huge parking garages and industrial-strength casinos that look like factories for the processing of bets.

And the efforts toward charm in Black Hawk are directed entirely inward, for the benefit of the gamblers. The giant tropical banyan tree at the Isle Casino, for example — an extreme incongruity at 8,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains — cannot be seen from the street, only on the casino floor.

The gambling expansion provides that state tax revenue — from new table games, a 20-fold increase in betting limits, to $100 from $5, and around-the-clock wagering — will flow to Colorado’s 13 community colleges, which ring the state like a necklace. And so the colleges have been important supporters of the law.

They need the money, college officials say. As in many other states, the recession focused the minds of students and their parents on more affordable choices, and community college enrollment has surged, up 32 percent for the incoming class this fall, compared with last year, even as Colorado’s budget has been battered by deficits.

“We were gratified that voters saw us as important, and that they felt this was an appropriate source of funding,” said Dr. Nancy McCallin, president of the Colorado Community College System. A tax increase this year to support the schools, she added, even with the surge in enrollment, “would not have passed.”

It is a bargain being struck, or negotiated, in many parts of the country as states face huge budget deficits. From Delaware, which legalized sports betting and table games at casinos, to Ohio, which recently agreed to let slot machines expand at racetracks to help fill a $3.2 billion budget gap, gambling has offered a bear hug, and many states are walking into the embrace. Critics of gambling say people will live to regret that.

“It’s not only individuals addicted to gambling, we now have state governments addicted,” said Tom Grey, field director for Stop Predatory Gambling, a nonprofit group based in Washington that opposes the spread of casinos.

Here to gamble in Black Hawk on a recent morning, Alex Marin, a lawyer from Denver, said he thought that the town would remake itself completely in the coming years, riding on the new revenue stream, and that towers like Ameristar’s are just the beginning of the creative destruction.

“They’ve gotten the 24 hours and the raised limits, now they’ll start after the Western flavor — it will lose that after a while, too,” said Mr. Marin, visiting with his wife, Annie. But that is what gambling towns do, he added. They reinvent. “It will all be more like this,” he said, glancing up at the Ameristar.

Some gamblers said that they were aware of the new link to the colleges, and that the knowledge might make the pain easier when the tumblers or the cards fall the wrong way.

“With everything being cut and shortfalls and the whole bit, if I lose a hundred bucks here, maybe I’ll help somebody buy a book,” said Pat McCarthy, a retired engineer from Longmont, north of Denver.

One executive at Ameristar who worked on the expansion effort, Troy A. Stremming, said the gambling industry had done polling in Colorado and found that education would be popular with voters as a recipient of new tax revenues. Colorado ranks 49th in the nation in support for higher education, per thousand dollars of personal income. Getting the colleges on board as active campaigners for Amendment 50, as it was called, was the next step, said Mr. Stremming, a senior vice president for government affairs.

“The Colorado Community College System was a great partner,” he said in an e-mail message. “Their outreach into the many communities where the colleges are located was critically important in passing the amendment.”

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