Riches and Regrets, by Patricia A. Stokowski

Review by Ed Quillen

Mountain towns – March 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

Riches and Regrets – Betting on Gambling in Two Colorado Mountain Towns
by Patricia A. Stokowski
Published in 1996 by University Press of Colorado
ISBN 0-87081-428-1

In 1990, Colorado voters amended the state constitution to allow limited-stakes casino gambling in three old mining towns — Central City, Black Hawk, and Cripple Creek. Since then, at least one casino initiative has appeared on every state general-election ballot: Trinidad last year, Manitou Springs in ’94, a whole passel of towns including Leadville in ’92 — and they’ve all been voted down.

Riches and Regrets explains why Coloradans might be less than enthusiastic about more gambling. It was promoted to save towns, and it became a way to shred communities. After gambling arrived, other things left — grocery stores, gas stations, garages, convenient parking, chatting on the street, loafing on a bench, and other institutions and pleasures of small-town life.

Cripple Creek gets scant mention here; Patricia Stokowski focuses on Central City and Black Hawk.

Be warned that this book was written by an academic for an academic audience, rather than for general consumption. Don’t expect much entertainment, even though the subject is compelling to anyone who’s interested in the life and times of little mountain towns.

Gambling was nothing new to Gilpin County. Stokowski fails to note that the Arapahoe loved to wager, but she covers everything since then. Gold-rush saloons boasted faro tables, and even after the state clamped down, the Central City Opera Association operated slot machines.

So when some local leaders saw a declining economy in the late 1980s and promoted limited-stakes gambling as a solution, it seemed to fit. Everything would be the same, except more stores would stay open in the winter, and they’d have a slot machine or two.

It didn’t work that way, though. Once the novelty wears off, casinos have to compete for the entertainment dollar, which means big-time marketing, which means more money and expertise than local entrepreneurs are likely to possess.

Further, property taxes are based on the “highest and best use.” So if you owned a downtown building, you couldn’t keep the rents low. Owners discovered they either had to get into gambling, an industry they knew little about, or sell out for big money and move on. Familiar institutions vanished, as did a trailer park.

Nor did gambling provide many jobs for locals — more than 90 percent of the casino workforce commutes from outside Gilpin County.

Meanwhile the county government, desperately in need of more office and jail space, built new facilities outside town. Which of course irked the folks who had moved nearby earlier because they liked scenery and the absence of traffic.

Some anticipated problems — more prostitution, organized crime — never materialized. Stokowski cites some benefits from gambling: improved town administration, more job opportunities. As one resident said, “It wasn’t a nice place to live before: there were no services, the cost was very high for things like water and electricity, and high school kids couldn’t get jobs.”

Stokowski is an acute observer of small-town politics and how issues get framed so there is only one outcome–the one desired by the local power structure.

For instance, the gambling proponents claimed that Gilpin County’s population and economy were in a tailspin. But the county population had been growing since 1960, and its per-capita income over the years was always near the state average. “The claims that the county was `dying’ were untrue, but such claims provided powerful imagery, and were likely a more effective rhetorical strategy than the truth.”

Stokowski notes that “As a campaign proceeds, claimants on one side of the debate divert attention from their critics’ concerns by reframing the discussion around other topics… [which may] include the legitimacy of, and values held by, the opponents themselves. In other words, any persons who question the claimants become themselves the object of criticism, and are labelled as irrational, un-American, against progress, or even worse. The result…is that the campaign becomes less about the real issue (the merits of gambling development) and more about the political beliefs of potential opponents (`They just want our community to remain impoverished!’).”

How well I know.

As gambling took over, opera and museum attendance declined even as ever more tourists visited. “Local people do not provide community festivals and events for their own enjoyment any longer; casinos produce the shows, but for very different reasons” — to get people to come to town and gamble.

Casinos also appropriated and revised the rich history of Gilpin County. Central City was never that lurid or violent. Its red-light district was tiny and its churches thrived. It was so placid in 1880 that Elizabeth McCourt “Baby” Doe left for excitement in Leadville.

But truth doesn’t sell, so “doormen dress as Western outlaws, and female greeters in skimpy feathered dresses and high heels suggestively hint at a `wild West’ imagery of gunfighters, train robbers, and `ladies of the evening.’ … in the eyes of some casino owners, the real history is not `real’ enough to attract patrons…”

At times, Stokowski hints that the Gilpin gambling boom was a sort of condensed high-speed version of what amenity tourism can do over time, but she never develops that, and I wish she had, for there is much we might learn from such analysis.

Another brief mention, worthy of further development, is the “Addictive Economy,” with the note that “the forces that buffet rural communities are far broader than those that originate within or can be controlled by the communities themselves.”

I found a few errors, most notably that “Cripple Creek was another historic gold mining town in 1860s frontier Colorado.” Cripple Creek didn’t come to be until 1891; it was a pasture in the 1860s.

Riches and Regrets is not light reading. But it provides an intimate portrait of two ramshackle little mountain towns which thought they were getting a few slot machines and poker tables, and became utterly transformed in ways that dismayed most residents.

And so, it’s a valuable addition to Colorado’s modern history, and a book worth consulting the next time you hear anybody touting quick economic development.

–Ed Quillen