The fable of Central City, Blackhawk | VailDaily.com

The fable of Central City, Blackhawk

Don Cohen

The history of economic growth in Colorado has always been written by wagon ruts, railroad ties and asphalt. On March 8, 1973, my friend Chuck Burdick and I became firsthand witnesses of Colorado history as we decided to drive through the Eisenhower Tunnel on its opening day. These are the kind of things that guys in college tend to think are cool to do.Actually, it was better than cool. It was amazing. No more tedious climbs behind semis grinding their way over Loveland Pass. A wide swath of asphalt flowed to the mouth of a gleaming white tunnel. I remember driving out onto the Western Slope and in the early dusk looking at the broad expanse of lanes gently winding down into Summit County.Certainly, no other public engineering achievement has meant more to the growth of Eagle County than I-70.A couple of weeks ago I was heading home from Denver and that same itch to witness Colorado history firsthand kicked in right at the Hidden Valley exit. About a week after its ribbon cutting, I found myself cruising along on the new four-lane Central City parkway. The painfully slow and winding route to Central City had now been bypassed by a straighter, and much more scenic, high-speed road.If you think there’s community tension between towns in Eagle County, it’s nothing compared to the near Hatfield and McCoy pathology that exists between Central City and Blackhawk. During its gold field heyday in the 1880s, Central City was the dominant commerce and residential center of Gilpin County. Just a mile down the gulch was Blackhawk, a dumpy string town of saloons and shacks.After it became unprofitable to mine for ore, Central City and Blackhawk slipped into a 100-year-long twilight of sleep. To survive, Central City mined its own history by keeping the town alive through the summer with tourism. To get to Central City you drove through Blackhawk, almost never stopping.In 1991, the towns (along with Cripple Creek) pushed for limited-stakes gambling to revive their tax base and community. In Central City in particular, shops rolled in blackjack tables and slot machines. One larger casino was built, and the coffers of the town started to fill. But then, something interesting and completely unanticipated happened.Developers started buying up the land in Blackhawk. It was cheaper and easier to acquire because there were less-valuable structures that required historical preservation or relocation. They started blasting away at the hillsides and in a few years started building really large casinos. Almost overnight the gambling visitors to Central City didn’t have to drive any farther up Gregory Gulch, preferring to empty their wallets in the new Blackhawk casinos.Well that just didn’t sit well with the fine folk of Central City, who were watching their tax revenues slip down the hillside toward Blackhawk. The solution? It was simple – get the visitor traffic to drive through Central City first. This concept was roughly akin to reversing the flow of Clear Creek. Central City’s citizens rallied and authorized over $40 million of debt to build a modern eight-mile parkway that completely bypassed Blackhawk.Not to be outdone, the town of Blackhawk is continuing to pursue a nearly two-mile tunnel that would start from the bottom of Floyd Hill and come out just a few miles from the Blackhawk casinos.Frankly, I thought this whole deal was nothing more that just another high-stakes game between the two towns, but driving that new parkway to Central City, I saw a decided method to the madness.The new road drops you right down into the heart of Central City. To be sure, with a rerouting of traffic patterns, businesses and casinos in Central City will re-establish a first opportunity position for capturing tourist and gambling dollars. However, the real future for Central City lies a mile south and up above the gully the town sits in. Above town are expansive gentle meadows and wide valleys that with convenient road access, are sure to become subdivisions, shopping areas, and enclaves with a golf course or two.Twenty years from now, I believe you’ll see a Central City economy that is much more diverse. Yes, they’ll be more casinos, but you’ll probably see a more upscale tourist trade, better restaurants, and some new schools.What Central City did is what I call a legacy project. Legacy projects take vision and a lot of political courage by elected officials and the voters in a community. DIA and the expanded Colorado Convention Center are good examples. Another legacy project will start rolling (literally) on the Front Range with the passing of the Regional Transportation District’s $4 billion FastTracks light rail, train and bus plan.Now is a great time for Eagle County to start thinking about what kind of legacy projects might shape our future. My personal feeling is that any Eagle County legacy projects should be designed not to accelerate growth, but to manage and channel the growth we know that will inevitably happen in a direction that provides both economic vibrancy and community quality.But of all the lessons we can learn from Central City and Blackhawk, perhaps the most important is this: Community cooperation is a lot less expensive than community competition.Don Cohen is the executive director of the Vail Valley Economic Council and can be reached by e-mail at dcohen@vvec.orgVail Colorado