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Know the West

Mining town gambles on a road to riches

A new highway will bypass a competitor, and sacrifice a bighorn sheep herd for development


CENTRAL CITY, Colorado — It’s a weekday evening, and the blackjack tables inside the Fortune Valley Casino are empty. Outside, a handful of cars are scattered in the parking garage and only a few people are getting off the bus out front. The scene is typical. The lure of "limited stakes gambling," which Colorado voters approved in 1990, has followed the pattern of gold mining in Central City a century ago: boom and bust. In 1992, 18 casinos were open in Central City; only four operate today.

Limited stakes gambling, which stipulates $5 maximum bets for all games and restricted hours of operation for casinos, was intended to help the towns of Central City, Cripple Creek and Black Hawk attain both historic preservation and economic survival. Cripple Creek is a few hours away from Central City, but Black Hawk — once the mill town for Central’s gold — is just one mile down valley, and this has made for a heated rivalry. At the onset of gaming, Black Hawk, with barely 100 people and a gravel main street, attracted little attention, while Central City struck pay dirt with small gambling parlors in historic buildings and blackjack dealers dressed in Victorian garb. Then, in the mid-1990s, Black Hawk carved out the mountainsides to make room for massive new casinos.

Today, Black Hawk’s 22 casinos are the first stop for the 50,000 metro Denver slot jockeys who travel 30 minutes up State Highway 119 each day. Farther up the road, meanwhile, many Central City casinos have disappeared. In March 2004, Black Hawk’s casinos brought in $45 million in gambling revenue, more than ten times Central’s take.

In response, Central City casinos are building a $40 million road designed to skirt Black Hawk entirely and get gamblers directly into their town. The high-stakes investment, which will open this November, could trigger a new boom for "the Richest Square Mile on Earth," but it will also break up a bighorn sheep herd and one of the last major chunks of open space along Colorado’s crowded Front Range.

A real estate jackpot

Joe Behm, chairman of the Central City Business Improvement District and marketing director for Fortune Valley Casino, estimates that "up to 500 cars an hour" will drive the new road once it opens this November; that’s about half the current traffic coming into Black Hawk on Highway 119.

Those drivers might not all be coming to gamble: The Central City Parkway will also open up previously inaccessible and undeveloped land, a rare commodity along Colorado’s Front Range.

"Once you put a road in, there’s going to be all other kinds of development," says Tom Howard of the Colorado Division of Wildlife. Even under rural zoning codes, there could be dozens and even hundreds of new homes sprawling across the range of one of the state’s largest bighorn sheep herds. Howard, whose agency has the bighorn emblazoned on its emblem, says land fragmentation would devastate the herd, but it will likely be a jackpot for landowners adjacent to the road, whose property values have suddenly doubled.

State and federal transportation officials are preparing an environmental impact statement to address gambling traffic, which is expected to double over the next 20 years. But they warn that the Parkway will not solve Central City’s access problems. The four-lane, 8.3-mile road will creep up slopes at an 8 percent grade — steep enough to scare off commercial bus carriers. The Colorado Department of Transportation also says the route will do nothing to alleviate the astronomical increase in auto accidents and congestion on Highway 119 since gaming began. In fact, it will generate more traffic.

But Central City has already bought a 150-foot wide swath of land running down to Interstate 70, and the business improvement district has sold a $45 million bond that will pay to build, maintain, plow and police the road without any state or federal help.

Meanwhile, transportation officials suggest building a separate access route — a $150 million tunnel that would pipe gamblers to both towns. Critics say both new routes will only help destroy the natural and historical values that gaming was supposed to help preserve.

Says Howard, "They’ve got many more problems than a road can solve."

The author writes from Paonia, Colorado.

C/A Russell Partners representing Central City Business Improvement District, Lindsey Zimmerman, 303-860-1040, www.centralcityhighway.com

Colorado Department of Transportation Tony DeVito, 303-716-9925, www.accesstogamingeis.com.