Three Colorado Towns Gamble on Slot Machines

SMALL-stakes casino-style gaming opened Oct. 1 in three Colorado front-range communities.Black Hawk, Central City, and Cripple Creek, acting on an amendment to the state constitution that voters approved last November, plugged in slot machines and uncovered $5-limit blackjack tables in an effort to revitalize their economies. The move is part of an upward trend in gambling nationwide: * Lotteries have swept the country; 48 states have some form of legal gambling. Tom Kitts of the Colorado Division of Gaming says many states are considering gaming legislation and are watching what happens here. * Iowa, Illinois, Mississippi, and Louisiana have approved riverboat gambling, according to William Thompson, professor of public administration at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Missouri may soon follow suit. * Video lottery terminals soon will go statewide in South Dakota and Oregon (where some sports betting is already allowed). * The Indian Gaming Act allows gaming on reservations if the states in which they are located have any form of legalized gambling. Tribes in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Washington, and Nebraska have requested permits. In all, Americans lose $30 billion on casinos, horses, and lotteries every year, Dr. Thompson says. Gambling has been sanitized by several factors, such as state lotteries and church bingo, says Thompson. "In the past, the arguments against gambling were morality, organized crime and corruption, and pathological gambling," says Bill Eadington of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada at Reno. "And of those, the one that has disappeared in most places is the morality argument." Colorado Gov. Roy Romer (D) is opposed to gambling. "I'm not trying to tell other people how to live their lives, [but] I do not want slot machines in every retail establishment in Colorado.... I'm particularly concerned when the state begins to promote gambling like lotto because then you get into the business of trying to convince people how they should spend their expendable income," Governor Romer said in an interview. "If we want to advocate values to people, I'd rather we pitched 'save and invest' rather than gamble," he adds. The tiny mining towns - Central City has 327 residents, Black Hawk has 235 - boomed in the mid-19th century. Central City holds historical significance for Colorado. Residents say they pursued gambling to finance historic preservation and a new water plant. "You can live without electricity but not water," says Mayor Rand Anderson. "A bunch of us were trying to figure out what to do. A new water plant will cost at least $1.2 million and the 326 residents of a depressed area couldn't pay for that. The state wouldn't help." The town established a corporation, and a subsequent referendum gathered 75,000 signatures to get gambling legislation on the ballot. It cost nearly $400,000 to campaign for gambling, while the opposition only raised $3,800. Central City has its new water plant, but also has become a commercial ghost town. Many residents have sold their homes and commercial buildings and left the community. Commercial and residential property values are rising. Shopkeepers who rented space were told that if they garnered support for the referendum, gambling would help their businesses. However, when gambling was voted in and their leases were up, they were evicted. In Black Hawk, elderly renters on fixed incomes were evicted from a trailer park to make room for a parking lot. Central City Opera may also be in jeopardy. Pat Stowkowski, a sociologist from the University of Colorado at Boulder who studies gambling and its effects, says that Colorado is not asking the right questions. What are the real costs and the real benefits to these communities? What are the social impacts of gambling? "Cycles of money have absolutely not been studied," says Thompson. "The money that goes into those casinos will be coming out of the Denver economy.... For every job produced in Central City, one will be lost in the metro area. People spend money on lotteries instead of products in the store, so, yes, you have tax revenues, but someone loses a job as a result."

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