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"Hey, Snooks!" he shouts to her. His voice is loud and grating, startling in the nearly empty casino. The only other sounds are the whirs and whizzes of the cartoonish slot machines, the pop songs being played over the sound system, and the hum of a vacuum cleaner. "How often do I come here?"
The answer is often: once or twice a week since the day the first casinos opened in Central City. So often that the 51-year-old knows many of the Fortune Valley staffers by name, including this particular employee, whom he nicknamed "Snooki" because he thinks she looks like the big-haired, big-mouthed Jersey Shore star, though he's never actually seen the show.
Mark is a slim man with weathered skin and a gray mustache who tonight is wearing a white T-shirt tucked into high-waisted black track pants. He prefers to gamble on weeknights because there are "fewer idiots" at the casinos, he says. He usually arrives in Central City at about 8:30 p.m.; that way, he avoids the daytime crowd of blue-haired old ladies, who are just as annoying as the idiots. He always drives — "Do I look like a goddamn bus rider to you?" he asks — and he always takes the Central City Parkway.
"I was on it the second day it opened," he says.
That was in November 2004. By then, gambling had been legal for thirteen years. But after experiencing a boom in the early days, Central City was about to go bust. Almost everyone who wanted to gamble would drive up the canyon to Colorado Highway 119 and then stop off at the big casinos in Black Hawk instead of going the extra mile to the smaller spots in Central City.
Rather than fold, town leaders made a risky bet. They decided to build an eight-mile highway that would connect I-70 directly to Central City, circumventing Black Hawk.
The Central City Parkway was to be paid off by the local businesses and casinos, which by that point had dwindled to five. The biggest, with 745 slots and 118 hotel rooms, was Fortune Valley. Built in 1994 as a Western-themed casino named Harvey's Wagon Wheel, it largely bankrolled the town's four-lane, $38 million solution. "As Black Hawk expanded, it was evident that Central City needed a shot in the arm. It needed a way to control its own destiny," says Joe Behm, director of marketing for Fortune Valley. When the road opened, Behm and others predicted it would attract 6,000 to 8,000 daily trips — which, in turn, would bring more money and several new casinos to Central City.
Six years later, the Central City Parkway has yet to fulfill all of those dreams. The town's growth "has been slower than anticipated," Behm admits. A few casinos have opened and then closed — but a couple more, including the sizable Century Casino, opened and stayed open. Las Vegas-based Pinnacle Entertainment, which operates several big casinos in the Midwest, bought a 1.5-acre parcel of land in Central City several years ago. "When they're ready, this would be a good spot for them to invest," he says.
But it's not clear when, or if, that time will come. For that matter, Fortune Valley just changed hands — sold at auction in August for $10 million to a Michigan company called Luna Entertainment, which already owns a small casino in Black Hawk, the Red Dolly. Meanwhile, many of the 2,000 to 3,000 drivers who come over the Central City Parkway every day pass straight through town and head down the hill to glitzier Black Hawk.
Mark is sometimes among them. He splits his time between Fortune Valley and the swanky Ameristar, choosing his destination based on which casino's video-poker machines are treating him better. The son of a wealthy oil-and-gas businessman, Mark claims he makes more gambling than he does working, which he admits he doesn't do much of. "In the last thirty days, I've pulled a little over $14,000 out of this joint," he says.
But he's losing tonight. "Come on, you dog!" he shouts at the machine after whacking the plastic "Hold/Cancel" buttons beneath the glowing screen. The rest of the dozen or so remaining slot jockeys are quiet, their eyes glued to their screens, their feet propped up on the ledges of their machines. A lone cocktail waitress in a short black skirt circles with a full tray of drinks. Maintenance men amble up and down the stairs, looking bored.
At 2 a.m., Mark checks his watch and calculates his losses: $750. That's more than he likes to lose in a single night, but he knows he'll have a chance to win it back. Or at least break even. "If you break even, you're ahead," he says. He cashes out, grabs his room-temperature burritos and makes for the door. Thanks to the Parkway, it's less than thirty miles back to Denver.
And less than five hours to dawn.