Central City Has the Clubs, Spades and Diamonds – Now it Wants the Arts

It doesn’t matter if it’s gambling, fishing, or golf – float the idea of a romantic getaway to a destination that just happens to cater to your favorite pastime and your soulmate’s response is likely to be the same.

“What else is there to do?”

So anyone inclined to snigger at Central City’s plans to promote itself as a home to culture as well as casinos should think again. There is method in its apparent madness, along with some distinguished precedents and a remarkable history.

Central City, Like Vegas, Wants To Diversify

Las Vegas, after all, recognized years ago that Sin City needn’t be all sin. Building a portfolio of non-gambling attractions alongside its casinos has only broadened its appeal, making it a go-to destination for business conventions and an easier sell to the families of its core customers. According to gaming historian David G. Schwartz, of the $434.70 per day spent by the average Las Vegas tourist in 2018, $285.41 went to activities outside of gambling.

Closer to home, Aspen underwent similar diversification in the 1970s and is now as renowned for arts and culture as it is for skiing; a re-focus that has not gone unnoticed in a small gambling town three hours away.

Casinos Give And They Take Away

No one is saying that slots and green felt have not been kind to Central City. Forty miles west of downtown Denver and with a population of 765, gold rush fever was just a whisper of history in this ex-mining town when it limped along on an annual budget of $150,000 in the late 1980s.

The city gave gambling the green light in 1991 and that same budget 27 years later was just shy of $8 million, with gaming contributing around 85 percent of the city’s total revenue.

A self-imposed moratorium on new casinos, however, handed the gaming initiative to neighboring Black Hawk, which became the magnet for new investment. As a new millennium approached, it was a dramatic shift in the balance of power and Central City, every one of whose commercial buildings had been a casino at one time, could not compete. There are now six Central City Casinos and 15 Black Hawk casinos.

Jeremy Fey’s Vision For Change

It was a sad echo of the late 19th century, when Central City’s gold output, although thriving, was suddenly heavily out-paced by that in Leadville, 80 miles away. Many businesses relocated accordingly, and the aftermath of the casino exodus a century later convinced entrepreneur Jeremy Fey that a different approach was needed.

Fey was thinking of childhood visits to Central City when he walked its streets with tears in his eyes four years ago, dismayed by what he saw. When the casinos arrived, they pushed many other enterprises out. When they left, nothing replaced them.
“I was very sad for the town,” he told Westword. “It was shocking for me to see Central City, which is really the seat of Colorado and the origin of Colorado, and to see 74 percent vacancies in the commercial district.”

Already unimpressed by the cost of real estate in Denver, he sensed that his plans in the fields of hospitality and artist residencies might be better suited elsewhere. When those childhood connections prompted a family relocation to Central City in 2017, he knew he had found his spot.

The culture agenda on which he successfully ran for mayor in 2018 made its first major statement that summer, with the return of the Central City Jazz Festival, after a 26-year absence. Now there’s talk of an arts academy and residencies for artists, along with two new performance venues, housing audiences of up to 3,600, and an associated influx of hotels and restaurants.

And if you think ‘culture’ still sounds like an awkward bolt-on for a city built on mining and sustained by gambling, you only need walk to 124 Eureka Street and behold, in all its 142-year-old glory, the nation’s oldest functioning opera house.

If the movies convinced you that the only entertainment in western mining towns revolved around poker and gunfights, this will be an astounding discovery. Such was Central City’s prominence in the gold rush era, however, that it hosted political figures and celebrities from around the world, while its workforce was led by many mine owners and managers hailing from elite families in the eastern states. An opera house would have been right at home: even one with a creek flowing beneath it and no heating system, rendering it usable for just eight weeks of the year.

The Difficult Road Ahead

Fey calls the opera house the backbone of the city’s cultural existence, yet even with such a monument on his side, the hiatus imposed by the coronavirus on gaming and the arts alike may not be the only hurdle in front of his plans.

Reporting on his inauguration as mayor early in 2019, The Mountain Ear hinted that his plans may be seen as controversial in some quarters, and Fey has subsequently acknowledged that it has been difficult getting everyone to agree on how the city moves forward. There is currently no timetable in place as to how its cultural development will proceed.

“My purpose is to turn [Central City] into a world-level destination for arts and entertainment. An aim like this is 24/7/365, not subject to a certain project or timeline,” he counters, adding the valid point that to make mayor in a town where he has lived for barely two years, standing against a highly-regarded incumbent, suggests that his vision does not lack for support.

Local restaurant owner Kara Tinucci certainly seems to be in his camp.

“The residents don’t want just casinos, they want more to do,” she said. “And of course visitors, they want to do other things. They may have one family member that doesn’t want to go to the casinos and the city needs to offer more things for them to do.”

However odd the bedfellows of culture and gambling might seem, those numbers from Las Vegas keep coming to mind. The gambling capital of the world and two-thirds of its income is money that has nothing to do with gambling.

Maybe this is one of the rare occasions when what happens in Vegas shouldn’t just stay there.

About the Author

Jeffrey Prest

A sportswriter for more than 20 years, Jeffrey Prest’s beat has ranged from English Premier League soccer and American sports to fly fishing (less drama but you never need a press pass). A spare-time gambler for almost as long (sports, horses, and poker) these two main strands of his life finally get to entwine.