The road stretches ahead, smooth and made for speed.
Getting to this point, however, was anything but fast -- or smooth.
Just past the sign welcoming westbound traffic on I-70 to Clear Creek County, "Mountains of Things to Do," a massive scar cutting across the slopes to the right marks the start of the Central City Parkway, a $38.3 million road funded by Central City and built in a little over a year -- after ten years of planning. The exit for that road lies just a mile further on, at Hidden Valley, and from there, an 8.4-mile, four-lane fun ride quickly takes you into Gilpin County and on top of the world -- where you can look out over as-yet-undeveloped mountain landscapes -- and just as quickly (at an 8 percent grade!) drops you down on top of Central City, right where Colorado was born when gold was discovered here 146 years ago.
More of Central City's past -- the original train station -- is buried in that pile of mine tailings to the right. Fourteen years ago, when voters passed an amendment to the Colorado Constitution allowing limited-stakes gaming, the measure was supposed to preserve what was left of three historic towns. But history takes more turns than the most ambitious road.
It's twelve minutes from exit 243 to the parking lot of Dostal Alley. All told, the drive from downtown Denver to Central City is a good ten minutes shorter by this new route than by the old, up Highway 6 and then Colorado 119 through Black Hawk, and the man inside the saloon/casino/brewpub is very happy to hear the news.
Central City's mayor, Buddy Schmalz, was the first brewer elected to head a Colorado town, beating John Hickenlooper by at least six months. His father, Bruce, was the mayor of Central City when residents first got the idea of joining with Cripple Creek to push for gambling to save the two old mining towns; when Black Hawk, the mill town a mile down from Central, asked to join in, they didn't see any reason to refuse their sad neighbor's request. Under the proposal, a large portion of the gambling revenues would go to the State Historical Fund, which is now the largest historic-preservation program in the country. A smaller portion would go to the gambling towns themselves, in the same ratio that the towns generated the revenue. And very soon, that meant that Black Hawk was raking in the loot. Early on, when Central City approved a moratorium to make sure that the industry intended to save the town didn't destroy it, Black Hawk was only too willing to scrape away the past in order to build for the future.
To save itself, Central City finally decided to build a road off I-70 that would allow gamblers to bypass Black Hawk altogether -- a move that seemed paved with bad intentions to the town's now affluent neighbor. A lawsuit and a land grab and grand-jury investigation later, the Central City Business Improvement District finally authorized the tax to pay for the project and began working with local and state agencies to build the road.
The Central City Parkway was completed a day ahead of schedule, then opened with a flourish of red ribbons and a flurry of vintage race cars. The one in the lead, piloted by former Indy 500 champ Buddy Lazier, deposited Buddy Schmalz in Central City in just five minutes.
"That was fun," Schmalz says. But then, his job as mayor has been a lot more fun since the road opened. He spends eight to ten hours a day perched in his brewery, the state's smallest, which happens to have a gorgeous view of the road down the hill to Black Hawk. Central City has always looked down on Black Hawk physically, and for many years, when this town was the center of commercial and cultural activity, it did so psychologically, too. The dirty work was left to Black Hawk.
But all that changed a decade ago (except, perhaps, for the dirty work). While gamblers flooded Black Hawk, Schmalz would look out at an empty parking lot behind Dostal. Today, though, he sees a steady stream of cars -- even buses -- coming through town, stopping in town. "There was a huge surge that first weekend," he says. "From the first of December until Christmas, for thirteen years those were our three worst weeks of the year. Now it's looking better."
Not perfect, but better. The weekend after the road opened on November 19, snow fell, and Schmalz heard a woman complaining about the road. Turns out she was complaining about Floyd Hill -- once she hit the Central City Parkway, everything was clear. Those two, shiny new public-works trucks made sure of that.
The road hit an unexpected bump when travelers complained that Idaho Springs was ticketing cars that turned right on red at exit 243. According to Idaho Springs police chief Dave Wohlers, the Colorado Department of Transportation is working with Central City to change that sign. (According to CDOT, the agency is looking into how Idaho Springs annexed that particular piece of land in the first place.) "A lot of people are using the parkway," Wohlers says. "I think it's great. It's the nicest road in Clear Creek and Gilpin counties." His wife drives it every day to reach her job in Black Hawk.
There aren't many businesses in the Business Improvement District that's funding the road. The casinos chased away some of the restaurants and gift shops that had been there, and then almost all of those early casinos closed, leaving just a handful behind. "We'll see some development on the vacant property," Schmalz predicts. "That's better than mowing down everything. Even if we wanted to move mountains, they're not in the gaming area."
As for the mountains moved to build the road -- 5.5 million cubic yards of dirt and rock -- Central City acquired land from three major landowners to stretch its boundaries down to I-70. In order for those landowners to build their own exits off the road, opening all that scenic splendor to development, they'd have to get permission from Central City, says Schmalz.
Central City has been fooled before, though.
Still, relationships with Black Hawk these days seem as smooth as the new road. Black Hawk's former manager, Lynnette Hailey, is now the manager of Central City. The Schmalz and Blake/Spellman families, the equivalent of the legendary Hatfield/McCoy clans, have intermarried. David Spellman, a Black Hawk alderman, is the godfather of Schmalz's baby.
The road that just a month ago was the main route to Central City leads down from Dostal past the post office, past Fortune Valley, the town's largest casino, past small shuttered casinos, past houses for sale, past Mountain Village with all the historic homes that Black Hawk has moved out of the way, past ever-larger casinos that are adding hotel rooms, adding parking lots, moving mountains, stretching all the way to the old sewage-treatment plant. But Central isn't looking down at Black Hawk anymore.
It's looking south, to I-70. It's gambling on its road to riches.
Let There Be Blight
I was out of town, reading the Boston Globe, when I learned that Colorado's reputation as the sexual-assault/college-drinking capital of the country had finally been supplanted: We were now the Christmas-bashing capital of the world.
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The rumors had been flying faster than Santa's reindeer since John Hickenlooper, the second brewpub owner elected mayor in this state, had suggested to a reporter that it might be time to take down the Merry Christmas sign that's long been part of the City and County Building's annual display, and next year replace it with "Happy Holidays." Within days, the story was all over the national media -- and at the very time that Hickenlooper was in New York trying to woo that same media, too. And with every story, more whiners called to complain. On December 2, the mayor finally surrendered. "Over the past several days," he said, "it has become clear to me that there is strong community sentiment to maintain the Merry Christmas sign, and I am glad to oblige. My intention was never to disrespect or slight anyone or any religious tradition. I apologize to anyone who may have been offended or mistakenly felt I was being anti-Christmas. Hickenlooper might have two os, but I am not Scrooge."
No, but he may be blind. Has Hickenlooper looked outside his window at that hideous display? The reflection of those garish lights alone should be enough to stun anyone passing by his office. Of course Denver should dump the Merry Christmas sign: If we're going to decorate a civic building from early December through the National Western Stock Show, a simple "Happy New Year" (maybe Happy Moo Year?) is more accurate, and inclusive. And the city should also fine-tune the color scheme of the light show so the building looks less like a rancid birthday cake. The display below will always look like a Wal-Mart post-holiday sale -- what with the snowmen, reindeer and other secular items needed to get that Nativity protected status in the courts -- but for Christ's sake, dim those lights and change that sign.
Not all traditions should be cherished. The KKK was strong in Colorado in the '20s, but no one's arguing for a burning cross this holiday season.