Residents may not have to travel to Central City or Blackhawk to pull the lever on a slot machine the opportunity to gamble locally could be close a hand.
More than 80 residents crammed into a meeting room at the Holiday Inn Tuesday night to hear representatives from the Northern Ute Indian Tribe discuss the possibility of building a casino in Craig.
Attendance for the meeting was by invitation, but as rumors of the discussion traveled, anyone interested showed up, leaving standing room only. The subject was controversial and not even the loud music coming from the next room lightened attendee's moods.
The tribe called the meeting because the owners of Craig's Holiday Inn invited them to. The Utes wanted to see if Craig residents would welcome a tribal casino into the community, said Max Adams, economic development director for the Ute Indian Tribe.
"We came here because we were asked to come," he said.
The Holiday Inn's owners proposed giving the tribe land for a casino if there was a driveway leading from the casino to the hotel's parking lot, Adams said.
"The Holiday Inn has no interest in being involved in the casino business," said Tom Sharp, the hotel's attorney. "But nearby land might be available for a tie-in."
In the summer of 1999, the Utes proposed building a casino Hayden. The town declined the tribe's offer. Many of the reasons the Utes considered building in Hayden are the same ones that prompted them to look at Craig: proximity to an airport, Steamboat Springs, Interstate 70, U.S. Highway 40 and the state of Utah, Adams said. One advantage to building a casino in Craig is that Craig already has hotels, which would save the Utes the cost of constructing one, he said.
Several Craig residents voiced their disapproval of the proposal.
"I respectfully would like to tell you that I disagree," said Gary Tague, a teacher and coach at the Moffat County High School who has lived in Craig for 23 years. Tague asked members of the crowd to stand if they felt a casino should not be built in Craig. About 80 percent of the audience stood. "You're taking other people's money. That's what gambling is about," he said.
Adams responded by saying "Believe me, we will not come here if the community does not want us. According to Indian law, we must have the support of the community for gambling to take place."
Another resident, Dr. Ron Kruczek, said "I think the message is out that Colorado doesn't want to see gambling expanded outside the areas where it already exists."
The tribe is looking for ways to make money, gambling is not the main issue, Adams said.
"We're not here just to peddle gambling. We're here because there's an opportunity," he said.
The tribe would welcome other possible investment opportunities, he said.
Georgina McAnally, a realtor who has lived in Craig for 24 years, asked the audience to be open-minded about the casino.
"We're all hoping that Steamboat will come down here and make us rich, but it's not happening," she said. "We've been trying for years to bring economic development to the area, the Ute organization is giving an opportunity ... We can no longer depend on mines, they've been great to us but ..."
The audience might not accurately represent the entire town's opinion of the project, Adams said. When an issue is controversial, often the only people that voice their opinions are the issue's opponents, he said.
The tribe had originally planned for a small meeting, with representatives from the Craig City Council, the economic development board, county commissioners and the Craig Chamber of Commerce, Adams said.
"This meeting tonight wasn't meant to be a public hearing," he said. "This was an informational meeting that grew bigger than I wanted it to ... No one was smiling when we started. They were waiting to get me."
Adams said the casino could be a positive thing for the community.
"I do know that Indian gaming facilities are cash cows," he said.
The casino could benefit Craig in several ways, Adams said. It would bring the city revenue from a flat rate the Utes would pay for allowing them to operate the business and from increased tourism spending; create 200 to 250 new jobs, increase the tribe's interest and involvement in the community, such as putting on powwows and other cultural events; and possibly provide a new daycare or youth center, Adams said.
"We look for projects that will make us money," said Armond Accuttoroop, a tribal member from the Ute's economic development department. "In a few years, we are looking to hire 300 to 600 people, and I know my tribal members can't fill those positions. We will succeed elsewhere if we don't succeed here."
The decision to move forward with the project now rests on the the shoulders of Craig community leaders, Adams said. They are the ones who need to gauge the public's opinion on the casino, he said.
"You need to know this isn't a process where we talk to you tonight and start breaking ground tomorrow," he said.
When Ute representatives met with Colorado's lieutenant governor, he outlined the process the tribe needed to go through to get approval for the casino. First, the Utes would have to show they have support from the community, gain regional support for the project and do a statewide telephone poll to judge public opinion. Next, the governor would need to sign a compact with the tribe approving the casino and the Utes would have to perform a feasibility study. The last step would be convincing the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to allow the tribe to place the land in a trust, Adams said.
Even if community leaders give the tribe the green light to go ahead with the project today, it would take two or three years to complete all the formalities and begin building.
"I don't want you to go home afraid the Indians are coming in with a casino," said Sandy Hansen, an attorney for the Ute tribe. "Even if the community were to support this, I would tell you that Al Gore has a better chance of becoming President than the governor approving the casino."
City Manager Jim Ferree said the city needs to look into the issue further before making any decisions.
"There are a lot of people who weren't represented here this evening that I'd like to hear from," Ferree said. "Their opinions count just as much as anyone's."
Mayor David DeRose agreed with Ferree. "The bottom line is this was an informational meeting to see if there was any interest, and we still don't know that," he said.
Adams said the public's response was similar to feedback the tribe got from Hayden.
Ray Mazzola, who was the mayor of Hayden when the Utes proposed building the casino there, said the town did a poll researching residents' opinions on the proposed casino. The town discovered about 60 percent of its citizens didn't want the casino.
"The moral issue of gambling, that was the resounding issue," Mazzola said.
Mazzola also said the Ute tribe representatives were very pleasant to deal with.
"They never really tried to force anything," he said.