Town's road to riches bypasses its bitter rival

Hamlet hopes to lure neighbor's casino-goers

December 02, 2004|By David Kelly | David Kelly,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CENTRAL CITY, Colo. - A decade of feuding and lawsuits might have ended here last week as this struggling mountain town celebrated the coming of a highway that it fully expects will be a road to riches.

Hundreds of residents, champagne glasses in hand, poured into the streets as the ribbon was cut on the four-lane, eight-mile Central City Parkway. They hope it will bring gamblers right to their doorstep, bypassing neighboring Black Hawk.

"It's been so long, we're actually looking forward to congestion," Mayor Buddy Schmaltz said.

Tom Kerr, a Black Hawk alderman, adjusted his cowboy hat and gazed at the spectacle before him. He insisted the distrust between the two towns was fading, but he couldn't resist a small dig.

"A lot of their wounds were self-inflicted," he said. "They need to build a product that will attract people."

Black Hawk and Central City - about 40 miles west of Denver - might share a border, but they are divided by more than a century of hostility.

A former mill town, Black Hawk was always the poor cousin of cosmopolitan Central City, with its opera and grand old buildings. But in 1991, when gambling was legalized in both hamlets, the tables turned.

Black Hawk erected enormous casinos with vast parking lots. Central City, eager to protect its historic architecture, built smaller; parking remained almost nonexistent.

Gamblers driving up twisting Clear Creek Canyon from Denver, the only decent way into either town, encountered Black Hawk first. When they did, they usually stopped. Central City's casinos, which once numbered 30, failed in droves while Black Hawk's flourished. The town of roughly 160 people became wealthy, with its 22 casinos pulling in $41 million a month.

Legal disputes

Central City, population 500, dropped to five casinos and struggled for survival. So local leaders launched an ambitious effort to build a road that would bring people to town without going through Black Hawk. Others believed the rough mountain terrain would make such an undertaking too difficult.

Black Hawk tried to thwart the plan by buying land in the path of the proposed road. But that plan came to a halt when a Denver grand jury said that Black Hawk officials had misspent taxpayer money and abused their authority.

Central City then sued its neighbor for $100 million; Black Hawk countersued.

Meanwhile, a group of businessmen from Central City got a loan to pay for the $38 million road.

"Nobody ever thought we would get financing, they didn't believe the road would get built," said Joe Behm, chairman of the town's business improvement district.

Indy racer

Central City officials, eager to celebrate, assembled a team of race car drivers before officially opening the highway last week to see how fast they could go from Interstate 70 to Central City. Buddy Lazier, a former Indianapolis 500 winner, did it in three minutes doing 155 mph.

A crowd of about 400 waited for the flashy cars to arrive. There were shrimp cocktail, sandwiches, wine and numerous bottles of Champagne to go around. An opera singer belted out songs in Italian.

Central City is planning to open two casinos next year, as well as build new parking lots. But Schmaltz cautioned that "It won't change our lives over night."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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