Aurora’s Road to Gambling Going To Be Bumpy

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    From John and Judi Marvel’s front porch in southeast Aurora, the periwinkle panes of the Arapahoe Park grandstand loom in the distance, the figurative eyes of the behemoth structure that stands alone on a desolate prairie. The track has been a benevolent, law-abiding neighbor to the Marvels who moved to their home in the nearby Tollgate neighborhood two years ago. The retired couple, he a former Colorado Petroleum worker and she a 30-year veteran of the state’s revenue department, relocated to the area seeking what many hope to find on the sleepy eastern plains: nothing but tumbleweeds and tranquility.

     

    “We moved out here specifically for the calmness and the quietness,” John says. “The only thing we ever see over there, other than the racetrack grandstand, is the Ferris wheel of the Arapahoe County fair in July, but that’s only four, maybe five days a year.”

    John says that he and his wife don’t mind the brief periods of commotion that unfold when the fair makes its annual trek into town or during the relatively short, 39-day race season at the track. However, there’s a new kid on the block – much bigger than an annual carnival ride – that could stir things up for Tollgate residents like the Marvels, an idea that has them deeply concerned about maintaining their restful lifestyle in the suburban community.

    “Our quality of life is at stake,” Judi says. “We as taxpayers, we as residents over here, we don’t want it and we’re going to do everything we can to fight it.”

    That “it” Judi refers to is something that for years Colorado voters and lawmakers have kept at arm’s length from the front range, neatly tucked away in gullied mountain towns. That is until – depending on what happens on November 4 – now.

    A casino.

    Colorado voters are getting another crack at bringing craps, cards and spinning cherries closer to Denver this fall with a proposition that has recently matured into Amendment 68.  The measure seeks to add limited gaming – slots and table games with no single bet higher than $100 – to the current racetrack facility at Arapahoe Park.  To house the gaming, Prop 68 proposes a tricked-out 175,000 sq. ft. casino, intended to boast a lot more than your local house of worship’s bingo night. Plans call for 65 table games and at least 2,500 slot machines, over 1,000 more than any one casino currently operating in Blackhawk. The bait for bringing this would-be gaming Mecca into the Front Range sits behind the fact that the measure is projected to rake in about $114 million annually for a statewide K-12 education fund, on top of an up-front, single payment of $25 million to Colorado schools. That breaks down to an additional $132 annually per public school student, and roughly $5.2 million for Aurora Public Schools alone. Those hefty totals would come compliments of a beefy 34 percent tax on all gaming revenue at the proposed casino, which is double the tax rate under which mountain casinos like Ameristar currently operate.

    A cacophony to the measure has erupted since it steamrolled its way onto the November ballot in mid-July with about 50,000-petitioned signatures more than necessary to be validated by the secretary of state. Though many proponents tout the measure’s potential benefits to education, throngs on the opposite side of the fence, like the Marvels, see the K-12 fund merely as a guise for increased property taxes and allowing an inevitable monopoly on gaming to unfold right in their backyard.

    “Right now, it’s all rosy, saying ‘we’re going to use a 34 percent tax on gaming revenue to devote entirely to education,’” John says. “It’s bogus.”

    The Marvels, and many other opponents, cite Prop 68’s nebulousness surrounding bolstering infrastructure in the area – adding roads, police and security – as a critical flaw in the amendment’s verbiage. In the final version approved by the secretary of state, the amendment allows for the host community to impose a “one-time initial impact fee,” as well as annual impact fees, although it does not specify an exact amount.

    “They have not said, ‘we’re going to take care of the infrastructure and security,’” John says. “Who’s going to take care of that? It throws it back to the general public, in turn the taxpayer, and causes an increase in our property taxes.”

    In response to critiques such as the Marvels’, the group in favor of the measure, aptly called ‘Yes For Better Schools,’ launched a series of televisions ads in mid-August that feature 30-second stand-ups from local educators and administrators. One of the first faces to grace the screen on behalf of the campaign was Brooke Booth, an educator and mother of three from Castle Rock who says she has seen firsthand the budget slashing that constantly plagues public schools, particularly programs for kids that struggle in school, as she says hers do.

    “My kids mostly struggle in the reading aspect,” Booth says. “A lot of times they stick them in front of a computer, or have fourth-graders try to teach and mentor second-graders. They’re being creative and they’re trying, but a fourth-grader teaching a second-grader? It’s not very beneficial, and it’s not the real deal.”

    Booth says that money from Prop 68 could be used to add trained staff to schools with increasingly anemic numbers of teachers.

    “Sixty-eight would add teachers, add reading specialists, math specialists and professionals who know what they’re doing, instead of saying, ‘OK, little fourth-grader, you’re going to teach this second-grader how to read.’”

    Although a small number of educators like Booth have come out in favor of Prop 68, many others have kept mum, and some have publicly stated their disapproval. One such dissident just happens to be the state’s paunchiest academic heavyweight, located only a few miles west of the proposed construction site: Denver Public Schools. In mid-August, DPS passed a resolution condemning the measure, citing that its passage would cause confusion and opacity as to where school funding comes from. The legislation also poses a potential problem for the Cherry Creek School district, which owns a parcel of land adjacent to the proposed casino plot that is tentatively slotted for the construction of a new middle school and high school, a notion that irks John.

    “I think it’s wrong to have kids subject to something of this nature,” he says.

    Standing on the opposite side of the issue is Shannon Rushton, a third-generation horse racer, father of three and executive director of the Colorado Horseracing Association. About as close to an actual cowboy as you get can these days, Rushton and his family have been regulars at Arapahoe Park for years, and he believes the measure could not only benefit his 14-year-old son, who attends school in Holly, but the entire racing industry.

    “Amendment 68 will afford us increased racing opportunities, more races per day, per month and per year,” Rushton says. “It will help solidify the racing business in Colorado by bringing people from out of state who will stay on a longer basis. That will put tax dollars into Aurora and Arapahoe County through more money going into hay, feed, hotels and restaurants, all of which will benefit from these increased opportunities.”

    Prop 68 will also allow limited gaming to take place at one Class B racetrack in both Mesa and Pueblo counties after five years of legitimate race operations, a provision Rushton favors. He says that the short race season and scarcity of tracks in Colorado drives racers away from the state, taking their money with them.

    “Competition from surrounding states that have this type of activity at their tracks offers a more lucrative purse fund for breeders,” he says. “At the end of August, everyone has to go participate in other states and they take their spending dollars with them. If we could keep those dollars in Colorado, while providing funding for education at the same time it would be a win-win.”

    Far from the plains of Holly, proprietors of mountain casinos in Blackhawk, Central City and Cripple Creek are the biggest challengers of A68, fearful that it will drive gamers and their economic impact out of the mountains and into the more accessible facility at Arapahoe Park.

    “I don’t see why anyone would go to Blackhawk if there’s a huge casino on the fringes of Aurora,” Steve Roark, president of the Colorado Gaming Association says. “The whole thing is a question of fairness, not competition. I compete every day with some 46 casinos in the state. It’s designed to make a monopoly for a company in Rhode Island.”

    The company Roark is referring to is Rhode Island-based Twin River Casino, owner of Arapahoe Park and the central lever-puller for Prop 68. Roark says that the company could operate essentially unchecked, and has basically written themselves out of gaming regulations by not specifying a need for more Division of Gaming agents, who work to make sure Colorado casinos are running legitimate, legal operations.

    “There’s no specificity that’s says the Division of Gaming needs more employees, agents, resources or anything,” he says. “So, who pays for that? Does it come out of the general fund?”

    Roark also expressed concern that an Arapahoe Park gaming site would lead to an economic vacuum for mountain casinos, endangering some 8,000 jobs, as well as funds they provide through taxes for local infrastructure, museums, and community colleges.

    Back in Arapahoe County, the Marvels echo Roark’s opinions on the imperialistic nature of Twin Rivers barging into the state, even given the fact that is estimated to bring close to 2,000 jobs to the county.

    “We don’t want out-of-state people telling us what they’re going to do and what they’re not going to do just to line their pockets,” John says. “Which is exactly what they’re doing.”

    While the vitality of Prop 68 remains to be seen, history is not on its side. Twin Rivers tried to implement a similar measure in 2003, which was defeated with less than 20 percent of voters in support. Last year, voters also dismissed proposed Amendment 66, which called for a $950 million tax hike in the name of education. Prop 68 proponent, former State Sen. Bob Hagedorn, says Prop 68 is meant to be a happy medium between the two.

    “This is a compromise, an alternative, not the sweeping, gigantic proposal 66 was,” Hagedorn says. “It’s perhaps a baby step to what K-12 needs in Colorado.”