Gambling was promoted as a way to save towns, but it became a way to shred communities. After gambling arrived, other things left - grocery stores, gas stations, garages, free parking, chatting on the street, loafing on a bench and other features of small-town life.
Author Patricia Stokowski tells us gambling was not new to Gilpin County, home of Black Hawk and Central City, since gold-rush saloons boasted faro tables and roulette wheels. Long after the state clamped down, the Central City Opera Association operated slot machines. So when some local leaders pointed to a declining economy in the late 1980s and promoted casinos as a solution, it seemed to fit. Everything would be the same, except more stores would stay open through the winter, and they'd have a slot machine or two stuck in some remote corner.
It didn't work that way. Casinos competed for the entertainment dollar, which means big-time marketing, which means more money and expertise than local entrepreneurs are likely to possess. Further, property taxes are based on the "highest and best use" of a parcel. Property owners discovered they either had to get into gambling or sell out.
Nor did gambling provide many jobs for locals: More than 90 percent of the casino workforce commutes from outside Gilpin County.
Some anticipated problems, such as more prostitution and organized crime, never materialized. Stokowski cites some benefits from gambling: Sloppy town administrations had to clean up, and local youngsters had more job opportunities.
Stokowski is an acute observer of small-town politics and how public issues often get framed so that there is only one outcome - the one desired by the local power structure. For instance, the gambling proponents' claims that Gilpin County's population and economy were in a tailspin. But Gilpin's population had been growing since 1960, and its per-capita income stayed close to the state average.
Stokowski notes that, "As a campaign proceeds, claimants on one side of the debate divert attention from their critics' concerns by reframing the discussion around other topics ..." In other words, any persons who question the claimants become themselves the object of criticism, and are labeled as irrational, unAmerican, against progress, or even worse."
As gambling took over, opera and museum attendance declined even with more tourists. Some community festivals died; others were contrived by the casinos. "Local people do not provide community festivals and events for their own enjoyment any longer; casinos produce the shows, but for very different reasons," Stokowski says - to get people to come to town and lose money.
Casinos also appropriated and revised the rich history of Gilpin County. As mining camps go, Central City was never that lurid or violent.
Riches and Regrets is not light reading; its tone is academic. But it provides a detailed and intimate portrait of ramshackle mountain towns that thought they were getting just a few slot machines and poker tables. The transformation utterly dismayed most residents.
University Press of Colorado, P.O. Box 849, Niwot, CO 80544; hardcover, $39.95. 338 pages. Illustrated with black-and-white photographs. - Ed Quillen
Ed Quillen writes in Salida, Colorado.
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