Deadwood is astir over another old building threatened by development. Optima LLC, which owns Cadillac Jacks and Springhill Suites on the north end of Deadwood, wants to move the Fountain House from its property along Main Street, across from the Days of '76 Museum, down the street about a mile and a half, to just past where Sherman Street bends southwest, near the head of the Mickelson Trail.

This move wouldn't be a big deal if the Fountain House weren't a historic house built in 1890. The Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission is meeting this evening to discuss whether moving the Fountain House to the more southerly location will negatively impact the historic nature of the neighborhood.

The Deadwood Trust for Historic Preservation doesn't think the move is a good idea. They are filing this letter with the DHPC this evening to protest the move. They say the Fountain House should stay put. The Deadwood Trust asks the DHPC to reject Optima's request because a year ago, in its original application to move the house, Optima contended that the building couldn't be used for commercial purposes, but Optima now supports the application for this move by contending that the building can be used for commercial purposes.

A February 2014 letter (included in the Deadwood Trust's communication to the DHPC tonight) from CPA Paul J. Thorstenson to Optima manager Paul Bradsky of Rapid City doesn't say the Fountain House is unusable for commercial purposes. CPA Thorstenson says says that the best commercial use for the Fountain property is a parking lot and that getting a return on investment from using the house in its current location would require charging renters three times the fair market value. If my impression of town serves me properly, parking isn't nearly as tight at the south end of Sherman, away from the big Main Street casinos.

But the Deadwood Trust still has a case to make. The entire city of Deadwood is a National Historic Landmark. Every building Deadwood lets deteriorate into uselessness, every building the casinos knock down for parking, takes away history and leaves Deadwood a little less unique and little more like every place else.

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Speaking of religious apocalypticists steering our politics, South Dakota's leading theocracy advocates (Perry Groten calls them a "social advocacy nonprofit"—come on, Perry!) are calling on Christians to keep keno, craps, and roulette from wrecking the Redeemer's return:

A social advocacy nonprofit will lobby against a measure in the upcoming legislative session to authorize three new voter-approved games in Deadwood and at tribal casinos.

Family Heritage Alliance Action executive director Dale Bartscher says the group's board unanimously agreed this month to oppose the legislation.

He says the organization will be urging lawmakers in January not to authorize the new games, which 57 percent of voters supported as part of Amendment Q on Nov. 4 [Perry, Groten, "Non-Profit to Lobby Against New Deadwood Gaming," KELOLand.com, 2014.12.13].

Good grief! What part of "The voters have spoken" do you Republicans not understand? We pass an initiative to raise the minimum wage, and you Republicans rumble about overturning it in the Legislature. We approve diversifying the games with which people can entertain themselves in Deadwood, and you Republicans (show of hands: how many Democrats belong to the political arm of Family Heritage Alliance? how many FHAA folks were lobbying their churchmates to vote for Democrats?) decide you'll sabotage the necessary enacting legislation.

I do appreciate FHAA's willingness to buck the free-market fundamentalism which they erroneously conflate with Christianity and get back to basics on this issue. Here's their pre-election statement against the constitutional amendment that was on the 2014 ballot:

Whereas in most cases, free market should be the primary regulator of business, in the case of an industry that generates so much addiction, societal ills, and even suicide, this should not be the case regarding the gambling industry. For instance, The National Council on Problem Gaming (NCPG) estimates that among South Dakotans, there are 18,000 adult gambling addictions which inflicts on the citizens of the state a whopping annual cost of almost $16 million. The NCPG also estimates that one in five problem gamblers will attempt suicide, putting this statistic at about twice the suicide rate of other addictions [Family Heritage Alliance Action, statement on Amendment Q, 2014.08.26].

I voted against craps, keno, and roulette myself. But the voters have spoken, and 56.69% of them said let Deadwood's casino industry do its thing. If the Legislature won't respect the voters' decision, it will respect the Deadwood casino lobby.

On the upside, we will get to witness the amusing spectacle of the Family Heritage Alliance casting its gentle Jesus against the state's true god, Mammon.

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Deadwood makes the New York Times... for being confused:

This old Western town of gunfights and gambling is going through an identity crisis.

...“It feels more modern, a little bit more Vegas style,” said Russell Lehmbeck, 43, a tourist from Wyoming who complained that Deadwood seemed confused about what it wanted to be. “It used to feel like I could get on a horse and ride down the road and no one would say a thing” [Steven Yaccino, "As Gold and Gambling Lose Their Luster, Deadwood Seeks a Spark," New York Times, 2014.07.10].

As we discussed in February, this identity crisis is motivated in part by the decline of gambling. It's not the smoking ban draining Deadwood's casinos; it's competition from 48 states that have legalized gambling in some form. Deadwood thus continues its civic conversations about how to retool its downtown and its community brand.

I still say build the outdoor-recreation brand. Get more hikers, bikers (the pedal kind), climbers, and skiers. Pitch the natural beauty that surrounds Deadwood... and make sure Wharf and the other miners don't take away any more of the mountaintops on which Deadwood should base its brand.

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Zut alors! The South Dakota Legislature's Rules Review Committee has found a way to make English the official and exclusive language in a few dusky corners of our state: the Deadwood card tables. In its continuing response to allegations of high-stakes collusion among poker players, the state Gaming Commission got the Rules Review Committee to say that speaking anything other than English at Deadwood's poker tables is verboten.

I can't wait until some femme fatale enjoying a taco and champagne sneezes and the unlucky yutz next to her instinctively says, "Gesundheit!"

The mischief-maker in me wants to believe there's a court challenge coming: discrimination against Native Americans speaking Lakota, an Americans with Disabilities Act violation excluding folks who speak sign language, something. But the Gaming Commission's lawyer says the linguistic exclusion is kosher:

“The reason we can is because gaming is a suspect activity,” said Mike Shaw, the commission’s attorney. “It is not subject to the same protection that other activities are.”

Sen. Jim Bradford, D-Pine Ridge, said it would be unfair, for example, if two players spoke Lakota at the table and the other players didn’t.

“Same with any language; you could manipulate the game,” Bradford said.

After the meeting Eliason said the “English only” rule is not an attempt to create an official language.

“Its purpose is to prevent collusion among poker players,” he said. “It is the same reason that we prohibited texting and other forms of communication that other players can’t understand or hear or see” [Bob Mercer, "New Deadwood Card Game Rules: No Phones, and English Only," Rapid City Journal, 2014.07.09].

Mercer reports that Nevada and New Jersey have English-only rules like this. Most (but not all) online poker outfits have similar rules. Rules requiring that card players interact in a single common language and medium thus appear to be normal and court-challenge-proof. So all you linguists hoping to impress the ladies will have to save your French for the bar. Quel dommage! Un autre chocolat, mon petit chou?

(Oh yeah, and the new gaming rules ban using cell phones during the game, meaning Pat Powers will squeak again about texting freedom.)

Tangentially Related: Kevin Woster swings the baguette and dishes some French in his essay on Chad Haber.

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The South Dakota Constitution allows Deadwood to conduct gambling on the condition that the city use the proceeds for historic restoration and preservation. Black Hills native Eric Zimmer writes that Deadwood and the First Gold casino may be violating the spirit in which South Dakota granted Deadwood that favor.

Zimmer writes about the old Sinclair station at the north end of Main Street. Our French friends would laugh, but this 1927 structure was indeed a registered historic site.

Was. Zimmer says Deadwood's Historic Preservation Commission and the First Gold Casino cahootsified to knock down the Sinclair station and put in a parking lot:

But as the Rapid City Journal reported earlier this month, nearly a decade of off-and-on litigation—and what some have alleged to be calculated neglect on the part of First Gold—spurred the building’s destruction. (Newspaper photos of the demolition can be seen here.) From the very beginning, critics claim, First Gold sought to level the Sinclair building and expand parking for casino patrons. But in 2010, the state Supreme Court found that because the station was a registered historic site, First Gold needed a permit—endorsed by Deadwood’s HPC—to destroy the facility. The parties eventually reached an agreement by which the hotel owners could expand their parking but would also have to rehabilitate the structure. More than a year passed without any such effort by First Gold, and a series of code violations eventually brought the property back to the HPC’s attention.

Ultimately, the HPC commissioners voted 4–3 to allow the building’s demolition on March 27. First Gold followed suit and toppled the building the next day, before any appeals could be filed or the town’s head historic preservation officer could clear the site for demolition. In response, a group of angry community members organized the Deadwood Trust for Historic Preservation and filed a lawsuit protesting the Sinclair decision and other recent cases that have pitted casinos against the preservation of historic properties. The City of Deadwood has also cited the contractor who destroyed the building for failing to obtain a permit, an offense which could result in a small fine or jail time. Ultimately, the courts will determine the intentions of First Gold’s proprietors, their contractor, and the HPC—and the legality of all of their actions [Eric Zimmer, "Is Deadwood Gambling with History? (Part 2)," Public History Commons, 2014.05.14].

Just how much worthwhile history is in one shuttered stick-built structure? Surely the commitment to historical preservation does not require Deadwood to lacquer every loose two-by-four in place and never change. But Deadwood survives on the commerce of 80 casinos (80! How many South Dakota towns have 80 businesses of any sort?) authorized by a unique Constitutional exception. A developer who pitched a rock-solid plan to boost revenue, jobs, and world peace by razing every building, leveling Mount Moriah, and building a giant skyscraper casino with a skytram to Terry Peak would be S.O.L.

So where in those extremes does a 1927 gas station fall? Was it an extraneous bit of the past whose small story is not worth the loss in convenience and revenue for its owner? Or does Article 3, Section 25 amplify that story and the story of other shops and homes in Deadwood and require casinos to take more care of the town they promise to perserve?

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Hearing concerns about cheating by collusion at Deadwood's poker tables, the South Dakota Legislature this session passed House Bill 1084, which empowers the gaming commission to ban cheaters, felons, and perhaps whistleblowers from casinos.

Unfortunately, Deadwood casinos don't seem terribly interested in learning how to keep cheaters from spoiling everyone else's fun in the first place. The South Dakota Gaming Commission is bringing in an expert to help poker dealers spot cheating and collusion. However, Bob Mercer reports that only one of Deadwood's four big poker venues (The Lodge) has signed up to send staff to next week's seminar:

Letters were sent to all of the casinos in Deadwood, regardless of whether they currently have poker, Eliason said.

The commission's chairman, Chip Kemnitz of Philip, said the lack of interest "gives me pause" [Bob Mercer, "Despite Allegations of Cheating in Poker, Casinos Showed Little Interest in Seminar," Mitchell Daily Republic, 2014.03.19].

Also torqued is commission member Dennis Duncan, who I hear is a serious poker player:

Duncan wasn't happy about only one casino committing to the training.

"It shows to me somewhat of an intention to ignore this problem, in some people's mind a serious problem in your gaming industry out here," Duncan said.

He said it will generate continued discussion among the public and "one commissioner at least."

"I think there are going to be consequences for that," Duncan said [Mercer, 2014.03.19].

Whether those consequences will come from the gaming commission remains to be seen. Revenue numbers suggest that players aren't yet dealing out consequences for the casinos' apparent apathy. Gambling industry statistics show that while revenue from player-banked poker has been declining since 2007, revenue from house-banked poker has been growing.

But note that the gross revenue from both sorts of poker in 2013 totaled $4.946 million. Slot machines generated $92.7 million in 2013 (down a bit from a peak of $97.4 million in 2010). Deadwood's casino owners probably already feel like they spend too much paying dealers to run card games that don't produce nearly as much money as dumb machines. Why pay extra to make those dealers even smarter? Or so the thinking would go among short-term quick-buck thinkers who signal to players that they aren't really interested in protecting players from card sharks and keeping the table fair for all players.

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A few South Dakota lawmakers tried really hard this session to dress their anti-gay bigotry in religious drag and allow pious business owners to refuse service to homosexuals. Those mean-spirited bills failed. (For the record, see HB 1251, SB 66, SB 67, and SB 128.)

But the Legislature has successfully expanded the rights of a particular class of business owners to refuse service to people they don't like. With very little uproar or opposition, the Legislature passed and the Governor signed House Bill 1084, which empowers the South Dakota Gaming Commission to ban certain individuals from licensed gaming establishments.

HB 1084 bans an interesting array of characters from casinos. Felons, violators of state or federal gaming laws, tax evaders, morally turpitudinous individuals (oops! there went some clientele)... yeah, maybe that part makes some sense. But check out these categories of behaviors and attitudes that can land you on the state casino blacklist:

  • (3) Notorious or unsavory reputation that would adversely affect public confidence and trust that the gaming industry is free from criminal or corruptive influences; or
  • (4) Conduct that would adversely affect public confidence that gaming is conducted honestly.

I think we just snuck in an anti-whistleblower statute. Suppose an individual came forward with accusations and evidence that there was organized cheating in poker tournaments. Suppose a regular patron of Deadwood's casinos noticed that a group of players was colluding to bid other players away from the tables and essentially rig the outcomes of the tournaments. Suppose that whistleblower said that such collusion was lining the colluders pockets but driving down participation in Deadwood tournaments.

Such concerns were brought to the gaming commission last November. Deadwood Gaming Commission exec Mike Rodman sounded like he wanted action:

“The industry should not have its reputation tarnished by rumor, innuendo and disgruntled patron’s blogs,” a fiery Rodman told the commission. “We stand in full support of the commission’s quest to put these rumors to rest” [Tom Griffith, "Alleged Collusion Among Card Sharks to Be Probed," Rapid City Journal, 2013.11.21].

HB 1084 gives the state gaming commission the authority to boot poker colluders out of the casinos. But it could just as easily allow them to boot the whistleblowers who dare tarnish Deadwood's reputation by pointing out that some players are gaming the games.

Let's see who makes the casino blacklist first.

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Look at this view, coming into Deadwood from the north on US 85:

Deadwood, Terry Peak in distance at right

Deadwood, Terry Peak in distance at right, June 26, 2013.

If you look at this photo and say, "Let's go inside!" you have no soul.

But that's exactly the response on which Deadwood has built its economic development model, encouraging people to come over that hill and rush inside to gamble.

Tourism marketing expert Roger Brooks sees that model as part of Deadwood's problem. In a town meeting Friday, the downtown consultant told Deadwood's leaders that they are not defining who they are and not differentiating themselves in an intensely competitive tourism marketplace:

Nearly 150 business owners and managers, residents and local government officials attended Brooks' presentation Thursday night at the Deadwood Gulch Convention Center. They variously greeted Brook’s observations with applause, nods and complete silence.

“You have one of the best downtowns in the United States, and I’ve been in thousands of them,” Brooks told his audience. “But I could not figure out who you are. Are you 1940s, 1950s, retro? I wasn’t transported back in time to the 1870s. I was expecting Tombstone … and quite frankly it wasn’t here.”

...“Who the heck are you Deadwood?” he asked. “Where is the experience? You’re not delivering on the promise” [Tom Griffith, "Deadwood Needs to Fine Tune Its Identity, Downtown Consultant Says," Rapid City Journal, 2014.02.17].

But Deadwood's all about gambling, right? Big deal, says Brooks:

“The days of casino gaming as a brand are over,” he said, noting that Utah and Hawaii are the only states that don't have gaming. “It doesn’t make you different and that’s the problem. Even Las Vegas no longer promotes gambling. They’re the entertainment capital" [Griffith, 2014.02.17].

Brooks is writing up a comprehensive plan for Deadwood that will recommend clearer signage, better parking, and more public bathrooms, retail, and restaurants. Even that plan may not fully differentiate Deadwood. After all, just as lots of other places offer gambling, lots of other places offer a variety of retail and restaurants. Lots of other places offer the great outdoors.

But as my photo above suggests, I believe outdoor adventures should be a big part of whatever new marketing campaign Deadwood adopts from Brooks's suggestions. Think of Deadwood less as destination and more as base camp.

Start with the Mickelson Trail. It's great for crazy guys like me who dig long-distance pedaling adventures. But I'd also contend the Mickelson Trail is the most family-friendly mountain-bicycling experience in South Dakota. The gentle grade up from Deadwood to the Kirk trailhead, 3.5 miles south and west, is beautiful. Beyond Kirk, riders and walkers get a weird and wonderful combination of the industrial scars of mining, the soaring views and deep forest past Sugarloaf, and the oasis meadow at Englewood.

Perhaps the only disappointment of a Mickelson Trail ride from Deadwood and back is that you come back to an empty lot where nothing is happening, where there's not even a comfortable spot to lean your bike and sit on the grass (at least not the last time I looked). To make the Mickelson Trail more appealing, Deadwood could center its retail development around the trailhead at that crook in US 85 where Sherman Street becomes Charles. Get that grocery store back so riders can stock up on chow for the trail. Reopen a visitor center and a bike shop in that great old railroad depot. Plunk a couple restaurants in clear sight of the trailhead. Extend a clearly marked spur from the trailhead to the Mountain Grand and the downtown casino area, but make the Mickelson Trail gateway its own center of commerce and recreation.

Deadwood boosters could further expand the city's outdoor appeal with a network of bike and foot trails around the city. Hikers could find no end of amusement and adventure a half mile in either direction from downtown, heading north and west to Mt. Roosevelt or east past Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane on Mt. Moriah. Encourage people to spend the whole day outside, then come back to town for a sizzling steak, a pleasant stroll the shopping district, and a good concert (which the Mountain Grand is doing, thanks in part to EB-5 investors).

Casino gambling may have its place in boosting Deadwood's fortunes, but as Brooks notes, the tourism market has changed to make gambling a non-unique advantage. Instead of focusing on recreation that revolves around sitting indoors, Deadwood needs to look around and remember that its thrilling geography makes it the perfect place for folks who want to get outdoors.

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