De Beque rolls dice on gambling to revive economy

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DE BEQUE, Colo. (AP) - A century-old cast-iron slot machine, with its “Jak-Pot” window stuck on the triple bars of a payout, is gathering dust on a back table in this town’s modest town hall.

It is a reminder of De Beque’s economic heydays when there were ranches galore, a lumber mill, a shale oil plant, banks and hotels. There were saloons where a fancy slot like this was popular. The slot machine now also heralds a hoped-for big strike for this threadbare town of 501, where storefront businesses are nearly all gone: The last restaurant closed several years ago, and the last rowdy bar lives on only in old police reports.

De Beque, about 30 miles east of Grand Junction, is trying to become Colorado’s fourth gaming town and the first on the Western Slope outside an American Indian reservation.

De Beque is working with two Western Slope legislators to get a referendum on the November ballot that would add De Beque to a 1990 voter-approved constitutional amendment allowing gambling in three towns. If the new referendum gains support from two-thirds of the House and Senate and from a majority of voters, De Beque could sprout casinos like Black Hawk, Cripple Creek and Central City.

“We’ve got to do something to make people take that exit,” said Forest Matis, 27, a lifelong De Beque resident and the chairman of the De Beque Wild Horse Gaming Committee.

Matis is referring to exit 62, which curves off of Interstate 70 and crosses over the Colorado River and under railroad tracks 2 miles from De Beque’s tiny downtown. That exit, just east of the mouth of De Beque Canyon, is currently distinguished only by a Kum & Go and by the strung-out scatterings of oil-patch drilling equipment and buildings.

The latest gas drilling boom in the Piceance Basin east of here has gone flat in the past several years. Ranching in the rugged area is a mere shadow of what it used to be. And the promise of oil shale development has proved over and over again to be as capricious as a big gambling win.

A spin through this town that tilts on the edge of the Roan Plateau illustrates why it is willing to take a stab at joining the big-league gaming industry when so many other municipalities in the state have tried and failed.

Duplexes and apartment buildings built with oil-field workers in mind sit half empty. Modular homes have sagging porches and crumbling paint. Fourteen homes have gone into foreclosure in the past four years, and some sit abandoned. Snow-covered furniture lashed into the backs of some pickup trucks outside trailer homes indicate there could be more.

The main drag of Minter Avenue has three businesses still operating - a headquarters office for the luxury High Lonesome guest ranch north of town, a small grocery store, and The Chop Shop Salon housed in an old gas station.

An “Open” sign in the Chop Shop window is the only lighted fixture on a street with no cars and no pedestrians.

Inside, one customer riffles through a magazine looking for a new hairdo. A bulletin board pinned with cards and fliers advertising pet sitting, mending, cleaning, personal protection products and a home-based tanning bed show how townspeople are scraping to make some money.

“I am definitely for gambling. It will help our economy,” said Chop Shop owner Stephani Rose. “It’s very hard to make ends meet here.”

Rose is one of 16 De Beque residents who formed the nonprofit gaming committee last fall.

An opinion-gathering town meeting had earlier shown general citizen support for the idea, and the De Beque board of trustees had voted unanimously to support the gaming effort.

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