It's the Pits

Mining made history in Victor. But will a new gold rush devour its future?

Fay calls Slim Hopkins "the best mayor we've ever had," but that opinion isn't universally shared in Victor. His tenure has been marked by two attempts to recall him and the entire city council, ostensibly over vague charges of "fiscal irresponsibility" and other alleged faults, but Hopkins supporters suspect that pro-mining forces played a part in the efforts. The mayor, the police chief and the city council were also the targets of a four-page anonymous flier that showed up in local mailboxes last summer, a marvel of calumny that painted the entire bunch as corrupt, self-serving, double-dealing buffoons.

The mayor has been sharply criticized by the mainstream press, too--that is, if your idea of the mainstream press is the Gold Rush, which has routinely taken Hopkins to task over perceived conflicts of interest involving a commercial property he owns and his shoot-from-the-hip style of government.

The new city council "has been much more adversarial and less effective, in my opinion," says editor Hilliard. "Our mayor seems to think that being chief executive officer gives him license to do whatever he wants. He's opening Victor up for lawsuits, if the mine was of that bent."

But the Gold Rush's critics argue that Hilliard has a few conflicts of her own--particularly since her husband, J.D. Hilliard, a former councilmember, is also a CCV employee. Hilliard says she's just telling it like it is, but the supposed need for a more "objective" newspaper was the rationale behind the Cripple Creek & Victor Eagle, a competing weekly launched by former Colorado Public Radio reporter Bob Dierking last year. The upstart Eagle has provided feistier, if somewhat strident, coverage of mining issues, often injecting into news stories editorial asides questioning the motives of various city officials. (One "publisher's note" in a report on a crucial city council vote involving the mine tweaked councilmembers J.D. Hilliard and Ginny Reilly: "The Eagle maintains that since both Reilly and Hilliard are mine employees, it would have been more ethical for them to have abstained from this vote since it clearly represents a conflict of interest." Hilliard fired off an angry reply, declaring that since he didn't own any stock in the company he worked for, there was no conflict.)

"We saw there was a need for greater objective and in-depth reporting on the area," says Dierking. "A lot of information that should have been revealed just wasn't getting out, and the good-old-boy network was very much alive."

Conflicts of interest over the mine are woven into the fabric of Victor, Dierking suggests; he even admits to some ambivalence about the project himself. "I remember four-wheeling back in some of the areas now controlled by the mine," he says. "Yeah, it was private property, but no one gave a darn if you went up there and explored the old ghost towns. I miss seeing some of those places; on the other hand, I grew up with family income from a huge mining company. I can't totally reject it, but I can be pretty upset about the mine taking advantage and ruining the environment around it."

The divisiveness has spilled over into a host of petty disputes in town. Hopkins has expressed an interest in shifting the town's legal advertising from the Gold Rush to the Eagle, which features a chatty column by the mayor. Innkeeper McCormick complains about a local convenience store that's become a "pro-mining hub" even though it also hosts the local post office. "There's a whole bunch of people who've moved their post office box to Cripple Creek," he says. "They will not go in that building anymore."

In recent months, another group has emerged with the intent of engaging in "constructive dialogue" with mine officials. Headed by Ruth Zirkle, a local freelance writer and former editor of the Gold Rush, Victor Focus has received financing from the state, CCV and local agencies to conduct a survey of local needs and to present a plan for minimizing the mine's impact on the area.

But because the group's membership is heavily weighted with people who have ties to the mine--including Komadina, CCV community affairs manager John Blythe and retired mine employee Ed Hunter--Victor Focus is also regarded as suspect in some quarters.

"I fell for them," says Mayor Hopkins, who approved a request for $2,500 in city funding toward the group's survey. "They came to me and said, 'Let us negotiate on your behalf and we'll produce results.' I authorized them to do that, not knowing that half of their members are mining people."

Zirkle says the group, which now calls itself the Southern Teller County Focus Group, couldn't have accomplished anything without involving the mine. "Our goal is to bring something positive out of the process, and if we have to go through a lot of negativity in the middle, we'll do it," she says.

To date, the group has had preliminary discussions with CCV about possible uses of the land--bike trails, a golf course--after mining is completed. Nothing definite has been decided, Zirkle says, "but they're willing to do a lot if they know what we want."

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