All bets are off: Westword writers head up the hill to Black Hawk and Central City

Wednesday, 6:27 a.m.

Location, location, location.

From the top of the Ameristar, you catch the first glimpse of the sun rising over Denver far below, glinting off the aspen that have already turned to gold on the mountainsides.

It was the discovery of gold a mile up the canyon 151 years ago that led to the founding of Central City and Black Hawk, which early on learned how to make the most of its location. While miners pulled ore out of the hills around Central City, Black Hawk became the milling center that pulled the gold out of that ore, then sent it on its way to Denver and the rest of the world.

But the mines petered out at the turn of the last century, and by the mid-'80s, Black Hawk was just a wide spot in the road at the intersection of Colorado highways 119 and 160, which led to Central City — still a destination town, with the Central City Opera and a big inventory of historic buildings, even if many of them were devoted to selling saltwater taffy and other tourist trappings. Black Hawk had the trailer park and the gas station and the corner market — but true to its tradition, it understood the power of "processing." And so when leaders in Cripple Creek and Central City started talking seriously about bringing in legalized gambling, Black Hawk wanted in on the game. "There had been discussions for years about how to save these old mining towns," remembers David Spellman, whose family has lived in Black Hawk for five generations, from boom to bust and back again. "Technically, they were territorial charter cities that could regulate gaming, although that's not the way the state saw it." Not the way the state saw it in the '80s, that is, though it had looked the other way when gambling helped fund the Gilpin County schools back in the '40s.

So working with then-state senator Sally Hopper, the three towns pushed for an amendment to the Colorado Constitution that would allow limited-stakes gaming — bets of no more than $5 — in historic buildings in the three mountain communities, with the measure billed as a way not just to save the towns, but also to pour money into state coffers that would fund historic preservation across Colorado.

The amendment passed in November 1990, and when gambling started up on October 1, 1991, Central City was the center of the action; Main Street in Black Hawk was still dirt. But while Central City officials closely observed the language of the law — and even imposed a moratorium on development while they studied the impact that gaming would have on historic buildings — Black Hawk took advantage of its location. The wide spot in the road became wider as developers scraped away the hillsides and erased history to build ever-bigger casinos, casinos that were a mile closer to the metro area than the smaller casinos of Central City and captured most of the traffic. And the money.

In the beginning, Spellman had thought he might get into gaming; he and a partner even bought the remains of an old mill at the entrance to Central City from the American Legion, with the thought of developing it into kind of a Hard Rock Cafe/casino. But that dream died with Central City's moratorium — and Spellman realized that his future, and his fortune, lay in his home town. His father had driven down the canyon for forty years to a job; Spellman decided to make Black Hawk his life's work.

He was a city councilman when gambling came to Black Hawk. Back then, the town had a budget of $150,000. Today he's the mayor of Black Hawk, and the town's budget is $25 million. Along the way, the town's leaders have carefully, sometimes ruthlessly, strategized their next moves in the game. "Black Hawk plays chess while everyone else is playing checkers," explains Spellman. Gaming has paid for Black Hawk's new offices in fixed-up historic buildings; it's enabled most of the town's hundred residents to rebuild their homes from the foundation up — and to move those structures that were in the way of progress, like the Lace House, which had become marooned in a casino parking lot, into a re-created Mountain Village. Spellman says the town plans to reopen the Lace House as a museum and put retail shops in the surrounding buildings, much as it helped put a restaurant into Crook's Palace. Gaming has paid for Black Hawk's new roads, a new water treatment plant that can handle 30,000 to 50,000 people a day ("I'm not a mayor of a hundred people," Spellman points out), a reservoir and a new sanitation district. A special Black Hawk tax has poured $850,000 into Gilpin County schools over the past year, and the town has a proposal on the November ballot to tax owners of vacant buildings — most of them casinos that had opened in the first round, then closed when bigger gambling palaces came to town — to inspire them to get the structures back into production.