When members of the Northern Ute Indian Tribe arrived in Hayden in 1999 hoping to build a casino, they found a town that was expanding.
In that year, schools in Hayden taught 100 more students than they did this year. The Routt County Fair welcomed a record crowd of 2,616 people to the grandstands. Developers were planning a new subdivision, and voters approved a tax hike to pay for a $698,000 library expansion.
“We weren’t quite on the fat and happy hill, but we were on our way up to it,” Ray Mazzola said earlier this month about the economy he oversaw as mayor of Hayden from 1999 to 2001. “We were starting to get a couple more businesses into the community. We were much better off than we are now.”
Mazzola said he thought an Indian casino could take Hayden to another level of prosperity. He thought it could transform the town into its “own community” less dependent on the ski and tourism industries in Steamboat Springs.
But the Ute’s pitch for a gambling facility quickly was drowned out by the objections of Hayden residents.
Former Hayden Town Board trustee Pat Gann remembers all the phone calls.
“I guess they were more afraid of what a casino would do to our small town,” she said earlier this month while working at the Napa Auto Parts store in Hayden. “People were stopping me on the street saying it was going to bring crime and prostitution and drugs, you know, nothing good. I was personally for it, but I couldn’t afford to get run out of here back then.”
Gann and the Town Board decided to put the casino proposal to a public vote. A mail survey found that 70 percent of the 450 residents polled didn’t want the casino, and the board voted unanimously not to pursue it.
For 13 years after the vote, the casino chatter was dead.
Earlier this year, a new group of investors has revived it by pursuing an Indian casino near Yampa Valley Regional Airport.
Mazzola and Gann said they don’t want to see the town pass on a casino again.
“I think the economy is making people look back (at the 1999 decision) and say, ‘oh heck,’” Mazzola said.
As the Sleeping Giant Group embarks on a lengthy process to open a casino, hotel and entertainment venue in Hayden, businesses in the town are shuffling, closing and moving away.
Several storefronts on North Walnut Street and Jefferson Avenue remain empty. The departure of the Double Barrel Steakhouse to Craig last month left only two eateries standing downtown.
The Hayden Town Council budget meetings last year focused on how to do more with less money.
And while sales taxes in Hayden are up 7 percent this year compared with last, the town isn’t celebrating an economic recovery, adding many businesses or reversing the steady decline of students attending its schools.
“We’re dying here,” Gann said as she described why she’s so enthusiastic about the Sleeping Giant Group’s proposal for a 55,000- to 65,000-square-foot casino near her hometown. “We don’t get the Steamboat business coming up here.”
After watching the economies of Hayden and other Northwest Colorado towns deteriorate during the recession, Gann said she now regrets voting against the first casino proposal. She said she listened to her constituents but that she might have voted differently if she could have known back then what Hayden’s economy would look like today.
Sitting on the outdoor patio of the HiWay Bar she purchased in 1990, longtime Hayden resident Fawna Odom, a supporter of the first casino proposal, also spoke with regret.
Her HiWay Bar temporarily closed earlier this year after its previous operators stopped paying sales taxes to the state.
“We wouldn’t be in such a recession here if the casino had gone through,” she said. “We have to face reality. We have to get something in here now.”
Mazzola said he blames himself for not doing a better job of explaining the proposal to the Hayden residents, who ultimately sank the casino.
“There were quite a bit of moral aspects in question, and I don’t think we addressed those quite as well as we should have,” he said. “The comments we received were mostly in the negative. I wholeheartedly believe that was our fault. We never presented it how (the Sleeping Giant Group) is presenting it now. We just kind of put it out there and asked, ‘Are you for or against it?’”
There were no economic impact studies on a Hayden casino for the town’s residents to chew on back in 1999.
The Hayden Valley Press reported that while the Utes explored several locations in Northwest Colorado, the tribe thought Hayden’s proximity to an airport and its location between Craig and Steamboat made it an excellent site to start a business.
The Utes assured Hayden residents that their casino wouldn’t resemble a high-stakes Las Vegas casino emblazoned with neon lights, according the Hayden Valley Press.
“We were in the very, very baby steps of exploring this idea when it was shot down,” Mazzola said. “I think (the Utes) were just feeling the water and trying to see if the casino would be something that would be worth putting more effort into. It never got out of that stage.”
The Sleeping Giant Group's proposal already is considerably further along than that.
The development group has released renderings of the proposed casino, and the initial economic impact study predicts it could harbor nearly 1,000 additional jobs in the Yampa Valley.
Hayden residents had their first opportunity to weigh in on the casino proposal in July during a meeting that drew more than 100 people.
Mayor Jim Haskins told the Steamboat Today he thinks residents are more open to exploring the idea of a casino in Hayden than they were when they rejected one 13 years ago.
“I haven’t heard people dig in on one side of the issue,” he said. “It’s very different than the last time.”
Haskins served on the Town Board when it voted down the first casino proposal.
Even some of the first proposed casino’s most vocal opponents are saying the vastly different economic landscape existing today could change public sentiment toward a gambling facility.
“It’s a new story for this casino issue,” South Routt School District Superintendent Scott Mader said earlier this month. “I think at the time, I know things were kind of booming, and no one was looking for outside economic ventures like this.”
When the Utes approached Hayden in 1999, Mader was superintendent of the Hayden School District, and he opposed the casino.
“Economic development is nice, but the tradeoffs that come with gambling are not worth it at all,” the Hayden Valley Press quoted Mader as saying at a June 3, 1999, Town Board meeting.
Mader said earlier in August he still needs some more information about the latest gambling proposal before commenting on it.
Still a gamble
Hayden residents acknowledge their economy has changed for the worse since the Utes' proposal in 1999.
But some of their opinions about an Indian casino still remain as firm as they were more than a decade ago.
Realtor Medora Fralick opposed the casino 13 years ago, and she adamantly opposes one today.
“It doesn’t fit with our image and who are,” she said. “My biggest concern is there is no good, long-term research as to the viability of a small, off-reservation casino like this. For the first couple of years, it’s going to attract a large number of people. But after that, the newness and the novelty wear off and I don’t know if people are going to continue coming to this casino.”
She added that she thinks the costs of the project will outweigh its economic benefit. Still, she predicted opposition to a casino has faded.
“I think things have gotten more difficult, and that’s why the issue is going to have more support this time,” she said.
Former Mayor Mazzola said the casino proposal attracted more public attention during his one term as mayor than any other agenda item. He isn’t sure a casino could sufficiently jump-start Hayden’s economy, but he’s willing to campaign for it.
“I don’t know if it’s the golden step that will get us there," he said. "But it sure is a stepping stone that will get us in the right direction."
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