The Road to Ruin

Be careful what you wish for. You may get it.
On October 1, five years to the day after gambling became legal in three Colorado mining towns whose finances were as shaky as the abandoned houses that dotted their hillsides, the city council of Central City convened in its new home: a renovated Victorian building occupied briefly, very briefly, by one of the town's ill-fated casinos. After singing "Happy Birthday" to their newest colleague--it's tough to find civic servants here since they're prohibited from any gambling involvements--councilmembers got down to business:

Saving their town.
On October 1, 1991, the pigeons had flocked to Central City, eager to try their luck at one of the half-dozen casinos that were ready on opening day. Sixty months and many busted dreams later, only two of those casinos remain--and the ones that opened up afterward and somehow managed to hang on attract only a handful of customers.

On this night, as on every other night, all the action is down the hill, in Black Hawk. The town that was once Central City's puny sibling has grown up and out and is now beating its old rival bloody. A century ago Central City was the center of the mining community that developed around Colorado's first major gold strike; while it enjoyed most of the culture and commerce, Black Hawk, a mile down a narrow mountain gulch, housed the smelters that processed the ore, spewing out smoke and filth.

Now Black Hawk is filthy rich. The topography--the few expanses of flat land in the area--that made Black Hawk the natural place to do Central City's dirty work also left it perfectly positioned to do Central City dirty once gambling was approved. (But only after Central City boosters, who'd come up with the notion of amending the Colorado Constitution to allow "limited-stakes gaming" in their town, had agreed to cut Black Hawk in on the deal.) From the three casinos ready for opening day--one tucked into an old grocery store and selling beer out of a cooler--Black Hawk has turned into the state's gambling mecca, with developers building ever bigger casinos around a historic rock or two and impatient gamblers pulling into vast parking lots scooped out of mountainsides. They rarely make it a mile farther up the road to the casinos of Central City--a town that had actually attempted to follow the letter of the law, which was billed as a historic-preservation measure. Central City had worried so about growing too fast that it instituted a temporary moratorium on new building back in 1992 and committed to $33 million in infrastructure improvements.

Central City has paid a price for its caution. The twenty casinos in Black Hawk now rake in more than half of Colorado's gambling revenues. While Black Hawk broke the bank and increased its take by $1.4 million in July, Central City lost $1.3 million.

Gambling was supposed to save Central City. But that bet went bad.
So now Central City is focusing on another road to salvation: Southern Access, its own link to I-70, which would let gamblers get to Central City faster. Which would let them get there without going through Black Hawk.

But when Central City officials talk about the Southern Access proposal--which calls for a 5.7-mile roadway heading north to Gilpin County from the Hidden Valley interchange in Clear Creek--they don't mention gambling. Not at first. They expound on building new homes, and convenience, and keeping citizens safe from the perils of Highway 119. Only after all that do they acknowledge the advantages of cutting Black Hawk out of the action.

"Black Hawk is stealing Central City's business in a big way," says an official Central City position paper touting the plan. "The Southern Access could turn this trend around."

At their meeting the week before, councilmembers had hurriedly approved setting up a General Improvement District that would allow the town to raise the money for the $34 million road by taxing commercial businesses that stand to benefit from it--casinos, for the most part, since few other enterprises survive in Central City. Mysteriously, that meeting hadn't been broadcast live, as it usually is, so that townspeople can watch it in more congenial surroundings--say, the Elks Club, one of the few bars in town where they can't hear the anemic ka-ching of slot machines and councilmembers can't hear their hoots and hollers. The missing videotape, and what happened when the council went behind closed doors that night, and the petitions currently being circulated by residents challenging the GID, have been the talk of the town all week. Then again, there's not much else to talk about.

The natives are restless. Although many say they support the concept of a southern route in theory, they worry that already ailing casinos will never be able to pay for the $34 million road. (Late last month, in a move designed to benefit mom-and-pop places, the state upped the tax ante for the biggest casinos. But Mom and Dad packed up long ago, and Central City's largest casinos are already bemoaning the extra million dollars they could each shell out in extra taxes every year.) And if the casinos can't cover the costs of the Southern Access, then who can?

But Central City is betting on the outcome--literally. The town is going for broke. If the road isn't built, officials argue, the town will be broke, anyway. This way, they have a chance of hitting a jackpot. This way, they have a chance of surviving. If they build it, someone will have to come.

And sure enough, right on schedule, Black Hawk dealt itself in. Even as Central City was pushing through the formation of the GID, councilmembers learned that Black Hawk already had a contract on the exact piece of land at Hidden Valley that Central City needs in order to build the road. (Black Hawk claims it wants to build a pumphouse there.) After consulting with lawyers--the only group certain to get rich off of all these deals--Central City moved to have the land condemned, and it committed to the road project. Black Hawk--which keeps pouncing on Central City with all the glee of a suddenly overgrown baby brother trouncing a sibling--has countered with its own legal maneuverings. A town that decorated its own city hall as a "progressive" slot machine for gambling's fifth birthday isn't about to get taken for a sucker.

A November election was supposed to pave the way for Central City's new road--for Central City's salvation. Now, however, numerous legal actions, as well as those citizens' petitions, could throw up roadblocks and postpone the project. The $34 million project that suddenly seems the only way to save a city with new infrastructure assets and not much else--except a proud, and peculiar, history of hanging on.

The joker is ripping through the pack.
They say that gambling is addictive. They just forget to say who become addicts.


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