Anyone familiar with the area knows late September is prime time for the aspen, and the drive on Colorado Highway 67 south from Divide offers tremendous views.
That particular afternoon provided an additional opportunity: the chance to see Cripple Creek on the last day before the return of legalized gambling.
For so many years, it was a virtual ghost town. Beautiful panoramas, but a boarded-up, all-but-abandoned downtown. Winter visits had been more depressing, with snowdrifts covering much of Bennett Avenue and obscuring deserted storefronts.
But that day in 1991 was different. There was renewed hope in the air. The city wanted gambling, the state's voters approved, and it was on the verge of happening.
The actual scene was stunning, mainly because it didn't seem possible that casinos could open the next day. Construction crews were working like crazy, installing the necessary equipment and even putting up signs and light fixtures.
Nobody knew what to expect. At the start, Cripple Creek's main street would be dotted with 30-plus gaming establishments. Some larger than others, but many no bigger than a restaurant, bar or typical business. Nobody imagined casinos eventually would expand and consolidate, some spreading across three, four or more properties.
The best part, for those interested in preserving history, was that the casinos were required to look like the old days as much as possible, starting with storefronts.
On Sept. 30, there was only one appropriate souvenir. Because the Brass Ass already had been operating as a small store, it was selling black T-shirts with the gold inscription: Brass Ass Casino. My shirt, only worn a few times, today is still like new.
The safest projection was that Cripple Creek would have a second chance to thrive. It was far better than the alternative, with no other realistic hope for salvaging Cripple Creek despite its history and scenery. For one thing, the one-lane tunnel on Colorado 67, even with a stoplight to avoid chaos, scared off many visitors from returning.
A few weeks ago, we were back in Cripple Creek. We had gone there to lose money on a semi-regular basis through the previous 16 years, sometimes staying overnight. We had watched the progress and cringed at less-positive developments, such as seeing the casinos dwindle to a much smaller group, some operating under multiple names for different "rooms" after swallowing nearby smaller places. That eroded some of the character; it's too bad circumstances didn't allow little guys to make it.
This visit included something nobody could have predicted in 1991: an outdoor concert with a music legend, Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills and Nash fame. He played at the Gold Rush Palladium, an intimate, bowl-shaped venue behind the casino with good capacity and no bad seats.
We stayed at the Last Dollar Inn, a bed and breakfast that never would have made it before '91. We played the slots and video poker at a handful of casinos, finishing close enough to even that we left satisfied. And the drive is four lanes all the way to Divide now, much less daunting without the old tunnel. From where U.S. 24 begins climbing in Manitou Springs, it's only a 40-mile trip.
Is it perfect? No way. Somebody has to figure out how to produce more low-cost housing, so that fewer of the 2,000-plus casino employees have to commute. The state could help by building a state highway, or paving the road south of Victor, better connecting the area to U.S. 50 for additional access as Cripple Creek's leaders pursue their ambitious new Heritage Center in trying to create a year-round tourist draw.
It's also time to revise and lessen the restrictions of "limited-stakes" gambling.
Why not raise the highest allowed wagers from the $5 limit, for poker and everything else? Just imagine the potential for poker alone. Also, why not have craps tables and roulette wheels? And why not even allow wagering on sports events? With all of that, in Cripple Creek and the Central City/Black Hawk district to the north, the range of visitors would grow to include many more high-end players. Staying in Colorado would become a more appealing option for those who now fly to Vegas.
That would mean more casinos, more hotels, more amenities, more entertainment and much more revenue for the state and local governments. Oh yeah, and Cripple Creek's nearest airport is Colorado Springs.
Actually, this might be history repeating itself. Just like way back in the late 1800s, Cripple Creek is sitting on a huge gold mine.
Now it's just a matter of turning that treasure into reality.
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