A Colorado racetrack has the chance to become the state’s largest casino this November, and it’s quickly creating the most expensive ballot issue fight in the state’s 2014 election.
The horse racing track, Arapahoe Park, is operated by Mile High USA, a subsidiary of a Rhode Island-based racing and entertainment company. So far, Mile High USA has contributed more than $2 million towards a ballot measure that would allow the Arapahoe County facility to add up to 2,500 slot machines.
Initiative 135 has not yet met all the qualifications to be added to this fall’s ballot, even though supporters submitted more than 130,000 signatures for verification on July 14.
The pitched battle between gambling interests in the mountain casino towns of Cripple Creek, Central City and Black Hawk and the horse track has already generated more than $11 million in fundraising, and opponents to the measure have spent more than $7 million to defeat the proposal before voters even see it.
“The majority of our spending so far has been to sure up advertising space come this fall,” said Michelle Ames, spokesperson for the Don’t Turn Racetracks into Casinos committee, which opposes Initiative 135. “I think that our strongest arguments are just the facts: this is a ballot initiative written by a single Rhode Island company that wants to increase its bottom line. I think Coloradans will see that for what it is and they will reject the initiative just like they did in 2003.”
In 2003, a similar initiative was introduced to Colorado voters who rejected the gaming expansion by a 4-1 margin. Still, proponents of the measure believe that the time is ripe to try once again.
“I think that our country has gone through a lot in the last 10 years and if you base any of your assertions on what happened then versus what is happening now, that’s not going to give a good bet,” said Becky Brooks, Arapahoe Park spokesperson. “We have had some successes on this track; the attendance is up and we think this is the right time to do this.”
But several Black Hawk casinos that are already established in Colorado do not believe this is the right time to expand gaming in the state. In fact, five of the largest Black Hawk casinos have already contributed $8.8 million to the campaign against this expansion.
And those casinos also have out-of-state ties.
For example, one supporter of Don’t Turn Racetracks into Casinos is Ameristar Casinos, a Pinnacle Inc. subsidiary whose headquarters are in Las Vegas. Ameristar has already contributed about $2.8 million against the ballot initiative.
Another Las Vegas casino company who has contributed over a million dollars to the campaign is Affinity Gaming Inc., which operates Golden Gates and Golden Gulch casinos in Black Hawk.
A St. Louis, Mo., company, Isle of Capri, is responsible for contributing $2.2 million to stop the expansion of Arapahoe Park.
“It’s basically just a big battle between corporate interests,” said Eric Sondermann, an independent political analyst from Denver. “This is not an election where passions are going to be high among ordinary voters; this is a corporate fight all the way.”
But Mile High USA, in a desire to be more appealing to voters this time around, promised 34 percent of the net income from slot machines, or an estimated $114 million annually, to the Colorado K-12 education fund.
Still, $114 million may not be a large enough contribution to gain support from the education community.
“I am going to be very surprised if there are people from the public education sector who will support this thing like they did two years ago to increase taxes,” Sondermann said. “That was going to raise about a billion dollars for K-12 education. It doesn’t seem likely that $100 million is enough money to be worth it.”
While Arapahoe Park pledges to bolster the education fund, opponents to the measure say this new expansion will drastically change Colorado’s landscape of limited gambling, and decrease some of the funding for projects already voter approved.
Steve Boulter, who operates Dostal Alley, a family owned casino in Central City, fears that the Arapahoe Park casino would not expand the gambling community in Colorado, but would only take business from other establishments.
“We think that this would completely annihilate these historic towns and everything that we have done to help the economic survival of our community,” Boulter said. “We aren’t afraid of some competition and they are more than welcome to build up here in Central City, but they are trying to write their own rules into our constitution.”
As of July 1, 2014, none of the casinos in Central City had contributed to the campaign against the casino expansion; explaining they did not have extra money to enter the fight. So far, all of the $11 million in contributions to the opposing committee have come from large Black Hawk casinos. The only financial contributor to the supporting committee has been the owner of Arapahoe Park.
Those interests have created the most expensive issue battle in the state, accounting for nearly half of all the $23 million in issue committee funding. The Secretary of State’s office expects to either verify or deny the ballot initiative in the next three weeks.