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Cripple Creek casinos seek solution to housing shortage 

High-stakes housing

click to enlarge FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
No matter where you work in Cripple Creek, housing is a gamble. Take it from Mark Campbell, who moved to the mountain town an hour’s drive from Colorado Springs about a month ago, after Cripple Creek City Council appointed him city administrator.

He may hold the highest staff position in city government, but Campbell says he only found a house to rent because he “knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody.”

The first “somebody” was Deb Downs, the city administrator of neighboring town Victor. Thanks to her connection’s connection, Campbell and his cat are happily situated in a historic house in Cripple Creek — which Campbell admits is probably too big for them, expensive to heat and in need of a paint job. But it’s something.

Not everyone has it quite so easy.

One deli worker at the Brass Ass Hotel and Casino says she lived in a hotel for 10 months before finding housing for herself and her children. Her story sounds typical: State data show hundreds of casino employees, mine workers, teachers, police officers and firefighters commute an hour or more, often in inclement weather, just to make a living in Cripple Creek and Victor.

The towns’ leaders say they’re aware the housing situation is worsening, and they’re working to solve it. Cripple Creek and Victor were recently awarded a $25,000 grant from the state’s Department of Local Affairs for a joint housing needs assessment study, the results of which they hope will encourage new residential development. In the meantime, some of Cripple Creek’s gambling businesses — in the midst of a boom the likes of which the town hasn’t seen since the 1990s — are taking matters into their own hands by acquiring 
property for employee housing.

More than 90 percent of the 2,100 people employed in Cripple Creek in 2015 did not live in town, according to a report from the state demographer’s office. Of the out-of-towners, about a quarter lived in Divide, a town 19 miles north. Ten percent lived in Woodland Park, 8 miles northeast of Divide. And 17 percent lived all the way down in Colorado Springs. A handful of others were scattered as far as Cañon City and Denver. Only 3 percent lived in Victor — probably because housing isn’t easy to come by there, either.
click to enlarge Downs and Campbell (with Victor’s Becky Frank, right) have matching goals. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Downs and Campbell (with Victor’s Becky Frank, right) have matching goals.
Victor, the town on the other side of Newmont Mining Corporation’s Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mine (which employs about 700 people, according to the company’s website) trends similarly: 96 percent of the 300 people employed in Victor lived elsewhere, with 20 percent in Divide, 15 percent in Colorado Springs and 10 percent in Woodland Park.

Far-flung workers pose problems for the towns’ biggest employers. Downs says mine workers usually find a way to get to work even in the worst weather, because they know their jobs are at stake if they don’t. But when snowstorms hit, school district employees who live down the mountain often call in, she says, meaning cancellations are common.

And Cripple Creek’s casinos are beginning to realize that it’s hard to retain staff who have to commute from any farther than Victor.

“I think one of their struggles is that they get employees and they lose them,” says Bill Gray, Cripple Creek’s planning and community development director. “If a guy’s just working at the restaurant at the Wildwood [Casino], and he’s commuting up here — it’s 84 miles, you know, 80-some-odd miles every day — and he finds a job ... and it’s only five minutes from home, it may be an easy decision.”

If their expansion dreams go as planned, the casinos are going to need more employees, soon. In the past year or so, two businesses have submitted plans for some form of review, and Gray says another two are in preliminary conversations with the town about expanding.

Bronco Billy’s Casino has approval from Cripple Creek City Council and the town’s Historic Preservation Commission to build a six-story hotel with a restaurant, spa, retail space, event center and parking garage. Triple Crown Hotel and Casino still needs to submit development plans to City Council, but has the historic commission’s OK on a 158-room hotel with a restaurant, ballroom, event space and bridge. Gray predicts Century Casino will be the next to submit plans. It’s discussed renovating the historic Palace Hotel and adding commercial space. Then there’s Wildwood Casino, which is looking at adding a 100-room hotel.
click to enlarge Triple Crown Casinos has acquired the Gold Fever Inn for employee housing. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Triple Crown Casinos has acquired the Gold Fever Inn for employee housing.
Why all this action now? A December report shows that after a slump between 2012 and 2014, which Gray says was caused by road closures after the Waldo Canyon Fire, the gambling industry in Cripple Creek is growing slowly and steadily — though sales figures aren’t anywhere close to pre-Recession levels. But the real reason the casinos are choosing this time to expand, Gray says, is that their clientele isn’t growing. It’s aging.

“[The casinos are] looking to see where they can, I guess, gain market,” Gray says. “And it’s probably not specifically in the casino business. It’s in being able to provide entertainment, amenities, hotel rooms, restaurants... I think our casinos are beginning to recognize that their success lies in being able to attract a new and younger, hipper, cooler market.”

The casinos are apparently realizing that if they move forward with expansion plans, residential development won’t automatically follow. So Triple Crown Casinos recently acquired the Gold Fever Inn in Cripple Creek, which it plans to renovate into employee apartments. And Wildwood has purchased several lots in town where Gray says it may build housing from the ground up. Century, too, has discussed workforce housing, Gray says.

While Cripple Creek’s median household income was $32,802 in 2016 — about half of Colorado’s — and Victor’s was $44,444, the real problem isn’t necessarily affordability, but a lack of any new residential development.
“A lot of our housing is 125 years old and not in good shape, and we find that it doesn’t meet code,” Downs says. “We also haven’t had a new building permit, in jeez, probably 15 years, for a new house built in Victor.”

Gray estimates the average age of Cripple Creek’s housing stock at 70 or 80 years, though much of it is older. A drive through the area reveals an eclectic mix of residences, from dilapidated cabins to restored historic houses to RVs and mobile homes, with a smattering of newer townhomes. Gray says Cripple Creek’s newest multifamily development, which includes 10 townhomes, went up about 10 years ago.

Unoccupied, unmaintained, aging buildings frustrate town leaders in both Cripple Creek and Victor. In both towns, Campbell and Downs say some rundown houses and empty commercial buildings have out-of-state owners who refuse to sell, rent or maintain them — creating eyesores that could bring down the value of nearby property.

Developers must also contend with historic preservation design guidelines, which cover Cripple Creek’s downtown area and all of Victor. Though Campbell and Downs say the rules aren’t necessarily an obstacle to housing, they add a step to the planning process, as new buildings must blend in with the original late-19th-century architecture.

Both town leaders say they’re open to various solutions to the housing problem, such as encouraging or possibly incentivizing residential development, depending on the results of the housing assessment.

“We don’t have a lot of money like the big cities, where they can hand over cash to say ‘come,’ but I think types of subsidies or streamlining the development process — those are the things I think we could offer,” Downs says.
click to enlarge UCHealth will take over Cripple Creek’s small health center in April. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • UCHealth will take over Cripple Creek’s small health center in April.
“A lot of growth is moving up the mountain [that] was started in Denver, moving to Colorado Springs, now coming up the hill,” she reflects. “It’s impacting us. We used to be a sleepy little town and now, you know, a house goes up for sale and it’s sold.”

Gray hopes the housing assessment itself will serve as incentive for developers, by providing real data about market needs. The two cities partnered on the assessment, Campbell says, because any new housing would benefit both towns, located about a 15-minute drive apart.

But if the casino expansions lead to more residential development, they’re also likely to create additional needs. Though Cripple Creek has a grocery store and a health center, which Campbell says UCHealth will take over in April, neither city has a pharmacy — so residents are forced to drive to Woodland Park to pick up prescriptions. The nearest hospital is also in Woodland Park, so people with life-threatening emergencies end up on a 25-mile ambulance ride or in a helicopter.

While Colorado’s population grew by 28 percent between 2000 and 2016, Cripple Creek’s increased a mere 3.9 percent, and Victor’s grew by less than 1 percent. Neither town has experienced a large population jump since Cripple Creek legalized gambling in the ’90s. But Downs and Campbell are confident that the towns can quickly process the residential and commercial development applications that could come hand-in-hand with a growth spurt.

“One of the benefits we have as being small communities in Victor and Cripple Creek: If you have a planning application, it’s probably going to be dealt with within a week,” Campbell says.

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