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Butte, Montana

Pros and Cons of Open Gambling
part 3: A Tale of Three Cities

By Leslie McCartney of The Montana Standard

March 2, 2003

Miss Kitty's Casino in Deadwood, South Dakota
Deadwood, South Dakota legalized gambling in 1989 to help rejuvenate the town's economy. The infrastructure of the town has changed drastically, but the gambling has provided funding in many desired ways including historical preservation. Photo: Miss Kitty's Casino in Deadwood. 

Butte shares similarities with Deadwood, Central City and Black Hawk. However, Butte's project differs in many ways. For example, its scale outstrips those of the three towns with entertainment and other amenities part of the landscape.

Also, the current gambling towns are heavily regulated by their states with limits on betting amounts and the types of games allowed. There are also layers of regulation from local gambling commissions to plump state agencies to oversee gambling. And, the casinos required the blessing of its state residents since gambling was not allowed before.

Deadwood, S.D., has about 1,400 residents, no match for the more than one million visitors that visit the historic town each year.

Gambling has been in the town for more than a decade and was spurred when an important building in downtown Deadwood burned to the ground. It was a victim of neglect since no one was able to fix it up -- and also hurt by the fact that the town lacked the infrastructure to fight the fire.

"It was very scary for the community," said Vogt, the historical preservation officer.

That led to a grassroots effort to push gambling in order to save the town, said Milos, Deadwood's chamber director. The town was also helped by its proximity to other attractions such as Mount Rushmore and the Devil's Tower. The same gambling allowed at Deadwood is also allowed on that state's Indian reservations.

Casinos in the town are not on Las Vegas scale, since casinos are limited to historic buildings. But those buildings have been refurbished and reworked.

Along with the casinos that took over the main part of town, 4,200 jobs followed -- some of them non-union minimum wage jobs to better-paying wages, depending on the job.

Gambling was also attractive to South Dakotans because it is a clean industry. Officials said more people are probably living in the town now than before gambling took hold.

"You've got to balance the issues," said Vogt, who was born and raised in South Dakota. "The whole subject of gambling is controversial in and of itself."

However, both men say that gambling's money essentially saved the town and make historic preservation of the town possible.

One downside: With the increase in visitors has come a jump in crime.

"When you look at the sheer number of people and look at it objectively, it's not a very big rise. And we do have a large police force," Milos said.

Without hesitation, Milos said he believes the town would again choose gambling if it were to replay its past.

"It saved the community," he said.

Black Hawk and Central City in Colorado are about one mile apart in the mountains west of Denver and about a 45-minute drive for the millions of people living in the metro Denver area.

But the towns could not be more different.

Black Hawk, with its 20 newer, spacious casinos and hotels rakes in nearly 70 percent of gaming revenue in the state.

"Many of our casinos have national or regional recognition," said Blanchard, the city manager. It also attracts the lion's share of gamblers even though Central City is one mile up a winding mountain road.

At the heart of the problem is that Central City, once a prominent and wealthy mining town, tried to stay true to putting casinos in historic buildings, which limited their size.

Black Hawk, as the historical blue-collar brother filled with dilapidated mills, was able to allow the building of much larger casinos.

The result is that Central City is foundering while Black Hawk is booming, a reversal of fortunes for the old towns.

Hurt feelings have also translated into litigation as the towns trade barbs in legal papers.

Meanwhile, on a slow day, 15,000 people drive or ride to Black Hawk and Blanchard said that residents, who are now used to the traffic and people, have realized tangible benefits. For example, the town has a full-time building inspector and several residents have benefited from grant money to fix up their historic homes.

"It's been an interesting story," Lindberg said of the two towns. "It has not played out like anybody thought it would."

And although the state has benefited greatly from gaming in terms of revenue and money available to save history around that state, historical preservationist Lindberg cautioned that people need to examine a gambling town's future.

For example, Lindberg said that Black Hawk has lost all of its charm, now becoming noisy and crowded with just a hint of its historic past.

"It's entirely transformed," he said. "It's barely recognizable."

He said that many of the town's historic structures were moved to make way for casinos, and an important Gothic building was impacted.

"Even a building like that was seen as dispensable," he said. "You would have never thought that would happen."

Casino owners also prefer the big building to a smaller historical building and promises to revitalize have left many historic storefronts empty, in favor of 1,000-machine gambling nearby.

That said, he also admits that the state has seen gains from gambling, especially in the area of historic preservation where gambling dollars go toward saving sacred sites.

He also downplays gambling claims that it will help other businesses in town. "You have to remember that the casino environment is very self-contained," he said.

People do not come to shop -- they will eat in casinos, where they spend their dollars.

"I do not think it will bring a positive impact to Uptown," Lindberg said.

He says that businesses are actually stunted by casinos and their sprawl. That's because landowners have a tendency to sit on land thinking they will get rich if casinos expand and will turn away other legitimate business ventures.

Lindberg also pointed out that people left the gambling town because of the unwelcome community changes or to sell-out to casinos.

"Gaming brings into a community a force that is very hard to control," Lindberg said. "It is hard to balance gambling with a normal economy and a normal community culture."

A former Butte resident, who declined to be named, is involved in the gambling industry as a manager for a casino in Black Hawk.

"It's definitely good (news)," he said. "I know what the economy's like out there; it's a good thing for Butte."

:: Pros and Cons of Open Gambling in Butte - part 1 :: 
:: Pros and Cons of Open Gambling in Butte - part 2 :: 

Copyright Leslie McCartney and the Montana Standard, reproduced by permission.

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