Richard N. Velotta
Friday, July 24, 2009 | 3 a.m.
It’s a typically wonderful summer morning in the Rocky Mountains where the temperature has hit about 70 and around 50 people are climbing off a bus after an hourlong drive from Denver.
They’ve just ridden past the Coors Brewery, through the tunnels of U.S. 6 along Clear Creek Canyon to one of Colorado’s three commercial casino playgrounds: the old mining town of Central City.
Passengers are met by the scent of pine trees — and by a casino host at the Doc Holliday Casino on Main Street, handing out fun books while his assistant hands out $5 bills.
In the lead is my mom, Joan Velotta, who organized this bus trip as a fundraiser for her church.
Bus day-trippers from Denver keep the casinos in Central City and Black Hawk hopping, especially at midweek, while similar shuttles from Colorado Springs and Pueblo to the south feed the other mountain location where casino gambling is legal: Cripple Creek. Before the first of three buses for the day arrived at Doc Holliday, things were as dead as the OK Corral after the real Doc Holliday did his thing. But when the buses arrived, things were hopping.
By Las Vegas standards, the Doc Holliday casino is tiny at 5,666 square feet and its food amenity is a two-table snack bar. By comparison, Las Vegas’ largest casino, at Mandalay Bay, is more than 28 times bigger at 160,344 square feet. The Doc Holliday, incidentally, is about seven times larger than its nearby neighbor, the Dostal Alley Saloon and Gaming Emporium.
But Doc Holliday works with groups on fundraisers, which makes it popular for many. The casino will send a bus to Denver at no cost if the organization can guarantee all the seats will be filled. Passengers get a fun book that includes a coupon for a hot dog and chips, the $5 stake money, an entry form for a cash drawing (for $20) and another coupon for a second $5 stake available after an hour of play.
Organizations that use the casino bus as a fundraiser can charge passengers what they want to ride the bus and get to keep the proceeds. My mom’s fundraiser collected more than $800 for the day. She usually puts together about four or five a year.
But this summer’s trip held something different for these Colorado casino fans. The trip was July 11, lucky 7/11, and it was just over a week after new rules took effect for the state’s casino industry.
At 12:01 a.m. July 2, three changes affected Colorado casinos: limits increased from $5 per game to $100; the doors can be open 24/7 instead of closing from 2 to 8 a.m.; and craps and roulette were added to the list of games allowed.
The state’s voters authorized the changes in November, and the three cities’ governments had to affirm them. A party atmosphere not unlike New Year’s Eve ensued the night the changes took effect. Elvis impersonators and a Frank Sinatra show ruled the entertainment for Black Hawk and Central City.
Nancy McCallin, president of the Colorado Community College System, one of the primary recipients of tax revenue generated by Colorado casinos, rolled out the first official craps throw. McCallin said the system expects to be enriched by an additional $7 million to $10 million in the first fiscal year.
The Denver Post, meanwhile, dutifully reported that although the community colleges will be a big beneficiary, much of the profits will be heading out of state to the absentee owners of the casinos, which include some Las Vegas companies.
You’ve heard of Las Vegas’ Big Six — the dominant companies in our market, which are MGM Mirage, Harrah’s Entertainment, Boyd Gaming, Wynn Resorts, Las Vegas Sands and Station Casinos. In Gilpin County, Colo., where Central City and Black Hawk are located, they have a Big Five, the dominant players of that market. Only one of the Big Five is based in Colorado.
The market leaders are Isle of Capri of St. Louis, with two properties, 1,998 gaming devices and 870 employees; Las Vegas-based Ameristar Casinos, which is opening a new $235 million hotel tower in Black Hawk in the fall and currently has 1,639 games and 550 employees; Golden, Colo.-based Jacobs Entertainment, run by the family that formerly owned the Cleveland Indians baseball team, which has two casinos, 1,385 games and 650 workers; Las Vegas-based Golden Gaming, known in Southern Nevada as the company behind the PT’s Pubs franchise, with three casinos, 1,127 games and 500 employees; and Centaur, based in Indianapolis, which has a large Central City casino with 822 games and 500 employees.
The changes in the Colorado are a dream come true for Golden Gaming.
“We were expecting good things, but what we have seen so far has surpassed our expectations,” said Christopher Abraham, vice president of marketing for Golden Gaming in Las Vegas. “It’s great to be in a market where we can create some jobs and generate some excitement.”
The new games and increased hours have required Golden to hire 90 dealers and 30 support personnel in security, surveillance and floor management for Golden Gate, Mardi Gras and Golden Gulch properties. Although a few Las Vegas craps and roulette experts moved to Colorado, the bulk of the hires were local residents who were trained after being selected from applications solicited at job fairs.
Since the changes, “craps has been on fire, the tables have been generally full and on weekends, they’re packed,” Abraham said.
The new rules have resulted in some other interesting changes.
Golden already had Colorado’s largest poker room, but the higher limits have drawn far more players interested in playing with the $100 limits instead of games that only had $5 opens and $5 maximum raises. The company was hosting its Heartland Poker Tour in Black Hawk last weekend.
Abraham said the casino demographic has started to shift with more 20- and 30-somethings hitting the table games while retirement-age players occupy the slots.
The same results have been true for Ameristar, the publicly traded oddity that is based in Las Vegas but doesn’t have a casino here. The new tower is easily the biggest structure in the area and will give Ameristar the opportunity to transform Black Hawk into a casino destination resort when it opens Oct. 8.
The new property’s rooftop swimming pool is likely to be a hit. If the company plays its cards right, it could easily develop a gambler-skier market like the one at Lake Tahoe in the winter, with tourists skiing by day and playing at night.
“We’re very pleased with the uptick so far,” said Rebecca Theim, director of communications for Ameristar in Las Vegas.
Because Ameristar is publicly traded and is on the verge of announcing quarterly earnings, Theim can’t get too specific about results so far because of Securities and Exchange Commission “quiet period” rules.
But she said the company “has seen a nice bump so far, and we think we’re going to be able to leverage the new limits, hours and games.”
Colorado’s changes produced one of the biggest boosts in gaming since commercial gambling began in the state in 1991. The state’s casinos had their worst year in 2008, partially attributed to the economy and partially to the lingering effects of a smoking ban in bars and restaurants (and casinos) that began on July 2, 2006.
But when the new limits took effect, there was a big change. One of the blackjack dealers I talked to said July has been “pretty electric,” even for casinos such as Doc Holliday, where there is one blackjack table, one roulette wheel, a three-card poker table and no craps. The property still isn’t open 24 hours.
Newspapers were full of stories about the new limits. Evening newscasts had live cuts from the casinos. Thousands of dollars in ads appeared in papers, and on TV and billboards along Interstate 70 were beckoning people to try out everything new.
It got me to thinking: What dramatic change could Nevada institute to jump-start our economy?
We’ve already got nearly every game you could possibly want to play and betting limits never seem to be a problem. Our casinos already are open 24/7.
The opening of CityCenter is bound to give us a boost, but probably not like the one Colorado got with its new limits, hours and games.
The next big step for us may be to lead the fight for legalizing Internet gambling.
We have a progressive new president who seems agreeable to listening to new ideas. We have a solid legislative delegation that understands the issue and has the collective voice to be heard on the topic. We have the technology to monitor intranet wagering in the state. And, we have the best regulatory system in the nation, probably the world, to oversee Internet wagering.
We have willing supporters in the nation’s poker rooms and an offshore Internet industry that may welcome moving to the United States — specifically Nevada — if the tax environment is more favorable.
Revisiting the issue of Internet gambling may be Nevada’s answer to Colorado’s lucrative new regulatory changes.
Richard N. Velotta covers tourism, technology and small business for In Business Las Vegas and its sister publication, the Las Vegas Sun. He can be reached at 259-4061 or at [email protected]