Deadwood balances rough image with modern gambling

Mar 21, 2012, 8:35 PM

Associated Press

DEADWOOD, S.D. (AP) – The store signs of this Old West village are drawn with a typeface reminiscent of “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters. The streets are paved with bricks that evoke the dusty 1800s.

But don’t be fooled. The streets are new. So are the signs. And that quaint trolley that just rolled down Main Street? Yep, that’s new, too.

Deadwood, a town of 1,300 born in a gold rush, has more in common these days with modern Las Vegas than with the famous historical figures who lived and died here, such as Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. The giveaway is inside the buildings, where gamblers gather around shiny slot machines and felt-covered poker tables.

Now Deadwood is confronting another challenge: How to keep its rough-and-tumble aesthetics while still offering the comfort, convenience and profitability of a 21st century gambling spot that draws 2 million tourists each year.

Gambling “was always meant to benefit historic preservation here. From the get-go, that was the No. 1 goal,” said Kevin Kuchenbecker, Deadwood’s historic preservation officer. “Preservation is never-ending. It’s ongoing. Deadwood was a dying community, and gaming brought it back.”

Larry Eliason, executive secretary for the South Dakota Commission on Gaming, said Deadwood has to look vintage from the outside in keeping with the city’s historic past. But inside, all bets are off.

“In a licensed casino, the managers want to have the most modern gambling equipment they can afford to buy,” Eliason said.

Less than a quarter-century ago, this place was on the verge of becoming a ghost town. The buildings were old and falling apart, and the city had too few residents to raise the tax money needed for repairs. Then gambling returned. Today’s Deadwood is part Vegas, part Tombstone, Ariz. It only pretends to be old, like a pair of designer jeans with holes already in them.

State officials want to ensure that the town’s popularity doesn’t wane, so they are increasing gambling limits from $100 to $1,000. It’s only the second time the limit has been increased since gambling was re-legalized in 1989. The change takes effect July 1.

Officials won’t venture to guess how much money the increase will bring, but the last time the limit went up _ from $5 to $100 in 2000 _ the casinos collected $14 million more in revenues in the following two years.

“We have more competition now in our surrounding states,” said Republican state Sen. Tom Nelson, citing casinos in Colorado, which permits roulette and craps, and North Dakota and Minnesota, which have higher betting limits at $250 and $1,000, respectively. Iowa also has gambling, with no betting limit.

Lawmakers testified in Pierre last month that raising the limit could attract worldwide poker tournaments and deep-pocketed professional players.

But residents, while hopeful that the increased limit will bring more tourists, don’t want it to come at the price of authenticity.

“When we first got here, Deadwood was pretty much a shambles of a town,” said Andy Smith, who has lived with his wife in the Black Hills near Deadwood for nearly 30 years.

The couple left Springfield, Ohio, in 1983 to walk across the country. They ran out of money in South Dakota, and though they finished their transcontinental journey to California in 1984, something about the history and the forests drew them back to the Deadwood area.

Back then, the downtown was a series of vacant, dilapidated buildings, except for a military surplus store and the No. 10 Saloon _ famous as the spot where Hickok was shot in the back of the head while playing poker.

“It was pretty decrepit,” Smith recalled.

That’s when a group called Deadwood YouBet began lobbying to restore gambling, which had long been banned to clean up the town’s gritty image and keep the peace.

In a complicated formula, most of the gambling profits were funneled to historic preservation, though some money was also diverted to the state’s general fund, school districts and the tourism department. After the first full year of gambling, in 1990, gross revenue skyrocketed from about $29 million to $106 million in 2010.

Kuchenbecker, the historic preservation officer, said the money resurrected the town. The asphalt streets returned to old-fashioned brick. The green-and-yellow trolleys gave 50-cent tours. Deadwood now spends $7 million a year to keep its buildings aesthetically authentic and structurally sound.

Grant programs helped historic preservation beyond Deadwood, too _ South Dakota towns such as Buffalo Gap, Hitchcock, Spearfish and Sioux Falls also benefited.

In addition, the money funded archaeology projects. The city’s former Chinatown, where Chinese immigrants clustered in the late 1800s, has yielded some 400,000 artifacts in four years of digging, Kuckenbecker said.

But not everything post-gambling has been golden.

“When it first started, we thought it was pretty crappy. There were slot machines in the grocery stores and just everywhere. It was tacky,” Smith recalled. “You’d walk into a place, and there’d just be these brain-dead people smoking and dropping coins into the slots.”

Then the improvements began. The money started sprucing up Deadwood by dressing it down. And even more life was breathed into the town after HBO produced a Western series named after the town. The foul-mouthed and critically acclaimed show was set in Deadwood after Hickok’s death.

The show contributed to a $30 million increase in gambling revenues during three seasons that aired from 2004 to 2006. In 2007, revenue surpassed $100 million.

But lawmakers got nervous when 2011 tallies showed a $6 million dip from the previous year. Legislators worried that the recession and the state’s recent ban on public smoking were going to take a long-term toll.

“There’s a direct flight from Sioux Falls to Las Vegas, so, really, we compete with Vegas, too,” Nelson said.

House Majority Whip Charlie Hoffman said he favored the betting limit increase because it would encourage high-stakes players to “blow their money in Deadwood.”

Smith hopes so, too _ to an extent. Money in Deadwood has meant more jobs and more opportunities. In the summers, the downtown bustles with visitors gathering for outdoor concerts and antique auto shows. There are more restaurants than the Smiths ever envisioned when they arrived.

But, he said, the prosperity comes at a cost.

“It’s a fantasy, and what they want to do is create an image. I think they’ve done a good job overall,” Smith said. “But having more people always creates a little more conflict. I hope they can keep things balanced.”

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Deadwood balances rough image with modern gambling