Deadwood balances rough with modern
Gambling rescued Deadwood from oblivion
The store signs of this Old West village are drawn with a typeface reminiscent of "Wanted: Dead or Alive" posters. The streets are paved with bricks that evoke the dusty 1800s.
But don't be fooled. The streets are new. So are the signs. And that quaint trolley that just rolled down Main Street? Yep, that's new, too.
Deadwood, S.D., a town of 1,300 born in a gold rush, has more in common these days with modern Las Vegas than with the famous historical figures who lived and died here, such as Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. The giveaway is inside the buildings, where gamblers gather around shiny slot machines and felt-covered poker tables.
Now Deadwood is confronting another challenge: How to keep its rough-and-tumble aesthetics while still offering the comfort, convenience and profitability of a 21st century gambling spot that draws 2 million tourists each year.
Gambling "was always meant to benefit historic preservation here. From the get-go, that was the No. 1 goal," said Kevin Kuchenbecker, Deadwood's historic preservation officer. "Preservation is never-ending. It's ongoing. Deadwood was a dying community, and gaming brought it back."
Larry Eliason, executive secretary for the South Dakota Commission on Gaming, said Deadwood has to look vintage from the outside in keeping with the city's historic past. But inside, all bets are off.
"In a licensed casino, the managers want to have the most modern gambling equipment they can afford to buy," Eliason said.
Less than a quarter-century ago, this place was on the verge of becoming a ghost town. The buildings were old and falling apart, and the city had too few residents to raise the tax money needed for repairs. Then gambling returned. Today's Deadwood is part Vegas, part Tombstone, Ariz. It only pretends to be old, like a pair of designer jeans with holes already in them.
State officials want to ensure that the town's popularity doesn't wane, so they are increasing gambling limits from $100 to $1,000. It's only the second time the limit has been increased since gambling was re-legalized in 1989. The change takes effect July 1.
The last time the limit went up – from $5 to $100 in 2000 – the casinos collected $14 million more in revenue in the following two years.
"We have more competition now in our surrounding states," said Republican state Sen. Tom Nelson, citing casinos in Colorado, which permits roulette and craps, and North Dakota and Minnesota, which have higher betting limits at $250 and $1,000, respectively. Iowa also has gambling, with no betting limit.
But residents, while hopeful that the increased limit will bring more tourists, don't want it to come at the price of authenticity.
"When we first got here, Deadwood was pretty much a shambles of a town," said Andy Smith, who has lived with his wife in the Black Hills near Deadwood for nearly 30 years.
When they first arrived, the downtown was a series of vacant, dilapidated buildings, except for a military surplus store and the No. 10 Saloon – famous as the spot where Hickok was shot in the back of the head while playing poker.
That's when a group called Deadwood YouBet began lobbying to restore gambling, which had long been banned to clean up the town's gritty image and keep the peace.
Most of the gambling profits were funneled to historic preservation, though some money was also diverted to the state's general fund, school districts and the tourism department. After the first full year of gambling, in 1990, gross revenue skyrocketed from about $29million to $106 million in 2010.
Kuchenbecker, the historic preservation officer, said the money resurrected the town. The asphalt streets returned to old-fashioned brick. The green-and-yellow trolleys gave 50-cent tours. Deadwood now spends $7 million a year to keep its buildings aesthetically authentic and structurally sound.
Grant programs helped historic preservation beyond Deadwood, too – South Dakota towns such as Buffalo Gap, Hitchcock, Spearfish and Sioux Falls also benefited.
Even more life was breathed into the town after HBO produced a Western series named after the town. The foul-mouthed and critically acclaimed show was set in Deadwood after Hickok's death.
The show contributed to a $30 million increase in gambling revenues during three seasons that aired from 2004 to 2006. In 2007, revenue surpassed $100million.
But lawmakers got nervous when 2011 tallies showed a $6 million dip from the previous year. Legislators worried that the recession and the state's recent ban on public smoking were going to take a long-term toll.
"There's a direct flight from Sioux Falls to Las Vegas, so, really, we compete with Vegas, too," Nelson said.