Could Pot Be the Next Jackpot for Historic Preservation in Colorado?

Gambling was supposed to create a historic jackpot in Colorado. In 1990, Coloradans approved a constitutional amendment allowing "limited-stakes gaming" in Cripple Creek, Black Hawk and Central City, a proposal pushed as a historic-preservation measure designed not just to save those crumbling mining towns by allowing gambling in their old buildings, and only their old buildings, but to put part of the state’s take into historic-preservation grants. Although casino developers quickly figured out how to circumvent the letter of the law — how historic does the 32-story Ameristar in Black Hawk look to you? — the successful grants program has made (and saved) history. Since the History Colorado State Historical Fund gave out its first preservation allotments in 1993, it’s issued more than 4,000 grants around the state, totaling $273,421,244 — all from the gambling pot. And this year, another $9 million will be doled out.

But that’s not enough to cover some of the state’s truly challenging preservation projects — including one in the heart of Central City, once known as "the richest square mile on earth." Can there be another act for the Belvidere Theatre? And could it be produced by pot?

The curtain rose on Colorado on May 6, 1859, when John Gregory found gold in what soon became known as Gregory Gulch. As fortune-hunters rushed to the mountains, entertainers were quick on their heels. Later that year, Hadley’s Hall, a grocery/meeting space that sprang up in Mountain City, the rough encampment by that first find, hosted “a traveling troupe operated by a Mrs. Wakely — and consisting primarily of her three daughters,” writes Roger Baker in 2007’s Before Camille: The First Fifty-Five Years of the Central City Opera House and Theater in Central City. As Black Hawk and Central City emerged on either side of Mountain City, theaters started opening, too; while some performances were housed in rickety wooden structures, the elegant Teller House, built by Henry Teller, soon to be one of Colorado’s first senators, boasted more respectable theatrical engagements, Baker relates.

After a fire leveled most of downtown Central City in May 1874, Teller and Judge Silas Hahn decided that Colorado’s cultural capital deserved a much grander performance space: a two-story brick building that would host a major theater on the second floor, with a raised stage, seven set changes and enough seating for an audience of 450. The Central City Register reported on the Belvidere’s progress in mid-1875: “A visit among the workmen engaged there to-day satisfied us that within three weeks we shall have by far the finest, if not the largest public hall in the Territory.”

But not for long. In 1878, the magnificent Central City Opera House made its debut right next to the Teller House. While that venue has had its struggles over the years, today it’s home to the world-famous Central City Opera. And the Belvidere? It’s been empty for decades, abandoned to all but the pigeons.

While theater had pretty much left the building by the turn of the last century, the Belvidere continued to be home to local businesses and host various community events. It was used to store coal, held an early car dealership and was dubbed the Armory Hall when it housed the Colorado National Guard during World War One. In the ’30s, the stage served as a basketball court; a 1938 WPA project converted the ground floor into a community center. And in 1975 it was the setting for a scene in The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox, a Goldie Hawn/George Segal film that was one of the most embarrassing movies ever filmed in Colorado. But the structure’s fortunes continued to slide along with Central City’s finances.

And then came gambling. With the prospect of a new boom just months away, Jay Williams, who’d bought the place for $117,500, reportedly sold it for a hefty $10 million in 1990 — but a proposed casino never materialized, and the building was sold again in 1999 for $600,000. “In later years, a variety of private and non-profit owners tried to rehabilitate and revive the theater, some with more success than others. Today it is a sad, structurally unsound shambles.” That’s the description of the Belvidere in an application to the State Historical Fund for a Historic Structure Assessment grant from its current owner: Gilpin County.

This year, with the Belvidere continuing to crack and crumble and no savior in sight, Gilpin County acquired the theater for back taxes. The current Gilpin County manager? Roger Baker, author of Before Camille and himself a playwright. Baker wouldn’t mind seeing the Belvidere return to its historic roots as a theater, and a handful of Central City residents would like to pursue that option, too. But estimates to simply clean up and stabilize the building could run as high as $2 million, and then there are outstanding water-service fees and liens for sewage fees from Black Hawk, which years before had itself acquired a tax lien on the Belvidere when that town envisioned turning it into a family entertainment center. But that plan, too, slid downhill.

The State Historical Fund grant would only cover up to $10,000 for a study — not the millions it will take to rehab the building. That amount of money won’t be easy to come by. While the constitutional amendment that legalized limited-stakes gaming provided that some of the take would go not just to the state, but to the towns and counties that house the casinos, funds have fallen off since the recession. In fact, Gilpin County has experienced a shortfall similar to the $3 million gap that prompted the recent changes at History Colorado, which oversees the state’s preservation grants, including the retirement of CEO Ed Nichols. “While the struggles of History Colorado offer parallels to what we have had to cope with here in Gilpin County, those struggles have implications for us as well,” Baker wrote in his county manager’s column published in Gilpin County papers last week. “Ed Nichols was for many years the chairman of the board of Central City Opera, and was both familiar with and supportive of the need for historic preservation in Gilpin County…. We were certainly counting on his being a champion for the SHF grants we will need to move forward with any long-term restoration on the Belvidere Theater.”

When Baker toured the Belvidere recently, he was shocked: “We didn’t know how bad it was,” he admits. But he also sees how good it could be — for Central City, for Gilpin County, for the entire state — if the Belvidere made a comeback. First, though, the county needs to find a tenant, maybe even an owner, with enough money to preserve the place for that glorious comeback sometime in the future. And so Gilpin County may look to a novel savior, a pioneer of the green rush, to save this vestige of the gold rush: Could a marijuana growhouse take over the Belvidere? “Nothing else is going to make the kind of money it needs for rehabilitation,” Baker says.

If gambling was supposed to bring pots of money into the state, pot has definitely done so. Wherever cannabis cultivation is allowed — and Central City embraced marijuana early; Annie’s was one of the first dispensaries to open on January 1, 2014 — the marijuana industry has gobbled up agricultural outfits and warehouses for grows. So why not the 13,000-square-foot Belvidere? Baker promises that the terms will be reasonable, if not downright cheap. Thanks to gaming, Central City has made the major improvements in water and power systems that are so crucial for growhouses. And plants aren’t particularly picky about intact roofs, modern bathrooms, charming (read: any) decor or the other aesthetic niceties that will come only after the Belvidere’s future is secure.

And the Belvidere’s next tenant won’t have to worry about security: The building is right next to the Central City Police Department.