Deadwood is counting on new games to breathe life into the historic mining town


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DEADWOOD, South Dakota — Twenty-five years after voters approved gaming in Deadwood, residents are turning back to the vice as the historic mining town works to reinvent itself.

Deadwood's boosters hope a handful of new, voter-backed games expected to hit the town in July will make it more competitive with the glut of gaming destinations available across the country. But a new threat to Deadwood's historical status — it was downgraded in November — is a reminder to some that the nearly 140-year-old city needs to remember the roots of its past success.

Casinos and residents hope the new games — keno, craps and roulette — will attract a new breed of gamer to the city: a younger audience, or at least one that may have traveled to Colorado or Iowa before to play the immersive table games.

A measure authorizing the new games still must pass through the Legislature before the casinos can move forward, but even opponents of gaming don't expect lawmakers to block the wishes of South Dakota's voters, who overwhelmingly approved Amendment Q in the November elections.

David Schneiter, general manager of Cadillac Jack's Gaming Resort, was working in Colorado when the state rolled out craps and roulette and upped betting limits in 2009. He said the expansion drew more people to casinos, and they ended up spending more money when they visited. Standing near Cadillac Jack's blackjack pit last week, Schneiter said he's still mapping out where he'll install the craps and roulette tables the casino plans on rolling out in July.

"I saw what it did in Colorado," Schneiter said. "We need an infusion of new life."

But it might only be the larger institutions like Cadillac Jack's and Deadwood Mountain Grand that see the direct benefits of the new games. Offering craps is more than simply buying a table, said Ken Gienger, general manager of the Celebrity Hotel and Casino, a smaller establishment on Deadwood's main street. Gienger is still weighing whether to invest in staff training — craps is a complicated dice game — and security equipment and whether to commit the floor space and cash collateral necessary to offer the game.

Karen Hallock, a blackjack dealer at the Celebrity Hotel, said the expansion would breathe more life into the "little town of gaming."

"The number one thing we're always asked is, 'Where's the craps?'" said Hallock, who lives in Rapid City but works at the casino on the weekends. "It's a pretty popular game."

Matt Smith, who was visiting Deadwood from Casper, Wyoming, said he was incredulous to learn craps isn't offered in the Black Hills town.

Smith, 29, is one of the demographics that Deadwood is trying to reach: younger, more social players. Smith said the additional games — craps foremost — would be a huge draw, lobbing Deadwood over Las Vegas as a destination to visit for himself and his friends.

"Deadwood is a great little town," Smith said, "but, yeah, craps makes everything better."

Brad Hemmah, general manager of Deadwood Mountain Grand, said the full-service casino will offer craps to compete with places like Vegas, just a couple hours away by plane. But Hemmah said even though Deadwood wants to compete with Vegas, it doesn't want to become it.

The city is working to remain frozen in time — at least on the outside. Historic Preservation Officer Kevin Kuchenbecker said this month's historic status downgrade doesn't tell the entire story of the city's preservation efforts. Driving in a repurposed police SUV up narrow roads on a residential-dominated hill overlooking the main city, Kuchenbecker couldn't go more than 30 seconds without pointing to a retaining wall or a house that preservation efforts helped restore. There are also new museums and much larger projects like the Homestake Slime Plant restoration, which became the Deadwood Mountain Grand.

Still, Kuchenbecker said keeping a balance between economic development through gaming and historic preservation, which is "the lure" that gets tourists to Deadwood, is important.

That's something Ryan Banderob, who visited from Dickinson, North Dakota, last week said he appreciates.

"I think it's really nice ... all the historical buildings and everything," said Banderob, 42. "It's not a dump like Atlantic City, from what I've heard, or a lot of places in Las Vegas."

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