HIGH in the Rockies, three old mining towns tried to preserve their historic character and shore up their frail economies last year by introducing limited gambling.
But gambling changed each town's character, and while their economies picked up, there have been unanticipated problems with sewage, crime, parking, roads, and traffic, among other things. None of these towns has done as well as predicted. Several casinos already have closed, and many of the smaller ones are in danger of following suit.
Today, Coloradans will vote on four amendments that, if passed, would expand gambling across the state.
Amendment Three would open up gambling in the so-called Gateway communities - rural areas located along the state border. Amendment Four would designate 11 mountain towns and three counties as gambling centers. Amendment Five would try to save the faltering town of Parachute with gambling.
But the measure that has received the most attention is Amendment Nine, which would extend gambling to the undeveloped Central Platte Valley near lower downtown Denver.
Many of these proposed amendments are incompatible with one another. And each one serves some special-interest group, while attempting to cut other interests out of the pie.
So far, voters in Colorado appear to be having none of it. All four amendments have met with resounding opposition in recent polls.
The argument pollsters say has proved most seductive for voters is that a large percentage of taxes levied on gambling would be used to fund Colorado's ailing education system. When the polling firm of Floyd Ciruli and Associates asked voters if they would be willing to allow the spread of gambling if all the taxes went to education, 54 percent supported it and only 38 percent opposed. But since not all the gambling tax revenues would be earmarked for education, more than 70 percent of voters oppose most
of the gambling measures.
The amendment least likely to succeed is Nine, which would bring gambling to Denver. It is the brainchild of Ron Lowe, a local developer who reportedly paid over a $100,000 to sign up enough voters to get the initiative on the ballot. A Canadian businessman has just contributed another $300,000 to pay for an advertizing blitz to promote Nine.
But Mayor Wellington Webb, who has been an outspoken opponent of gambling in Denver, is so certain that Amendment Nine is headed for defeat that he has turned his campaign efforts to other matters.
Mayor Webb argues gambling in the lower downtown area would ruin the city's effort to develop the area with a new amusement park, a new baseball stadium, and an air train running from Union Station to the airport. "It would be counterproductive to all the comprehensive planning, all the effort we've made to set Denver in the right direction [of growth]," he says. "We are looking for economic development in a wholesome way."
Furthermore, the mayor argues, Amendment Nine - which is voted on by the entire state but affects only Denver - would foist gambling on the city without the residents' express consent.
On the other side, Rich White, a spokesman for the yes-on-Amendment-Nine campaign, argues that gambling in Denver would gross $360 million annually, with $35 million going to the state's general fund and $36 million for public education. Mr. White argues that Denver's gambling dollars - which currently go to the mountain towns - would be better kept in the city itself.
"In Central City, Black Hawk, and Cripple Creek, 80 percent of every dollar made on gambling comes from the Metro-Denver area ... ," he says. "The mountain communities don't have the infrastructure to cope with the volume of people."
While Denver probably would be better able to absorb casinos, the experience of the small mountain towns with wagering does not seem to auger well for the rest of the state.
There are no grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations, or mom-and-pop gift shops left in Central City - they have all been turned into casinos.
Most of the former residents not involved in gambling have been forced to leave because of rising property taxes, increased crime and traffic, and other annoyances associated with gambling.
The nationally renowned Central City Opera reportedly lost 15 percent of its business over the summer. But one institution is thriving: The local chapter of Gamblers' Anonymous has doubled its clientele since gaming came to the mountains.