DEADWOOD | Business was booming Thursday at Cadillac Jacks casino in Deadwood.
Patrons hauled luggage and cases of beer through the lobby at they passed people huddled over slot machines.
Cadillac Jacks represents the modern Deadwood: a casino resort with hotel suites above a sprawl of slot machines, card tables and a restaurant. It's part of what has become a robust gambling industry for Deadwood, where casinos brought in over $1.1 billion in gaming revenue last year.
But down on the town's historic main drag — the place where gaming began here in 1989 — stretches of storefront have fallen silent. And now, five casino buildings along Main Street are up for sale; another, the Gold Dust, closed suddenly on New Year's Eve and has not re-opened.
While no one can say for certain why so many casinos are up for sale, some speculate that their location on historic Main Street and lack of full resort facilities have left them behind flashier resorts.
“It’s definitely a lot slower around here,” said April Brennan, who works as a chef at Miss Kitty’s on Main Street, which is on the market for $5.5 million. “It’s not the Deadwood when I first came to town.”
Brennan, 39, came here with her father so he could take a job at the Homestake Mine in the early 1980s. As she talks, rows of slot machines at Miss Kitty's stand unoccupied. She's watched the customer base of Miss Kitty's and other downtown staples shrink as the bigger gambling operations − like Cadillac Jacks, The Lodge at Deadwood, and Deadwood Mountain Grand — siphon off customers.
Now, the smaller Main Street casinos take what they can get, especially outside the summer high season.
"We still get people from Gillette, we get some from North Dakota, we're starting to get more bus tours in," Brennan said. "But, they're brief, just a day tour."
The Sturgis motorcycle rally doesn't pull in as many gamblers as one might think, Brennan said.
The larger casinos not only pull in people who want a bed upstairs, they also attract conventions to town, according to Tom Blair, 68.
Blair, Deadwood's mayor in 1989 when it became one of the few U.S. cities with legalized gambling, said the shift toward casino resorts is due in part to human nature. After all, the resorts offer more in the way of food and promotions, they can afford to change out their machines more often, and they can bear the costs necessary to scratch out a profit during slower times.
"I just think the nature of the business, the cost of the business, land taxes, those things have [given] larger facilities a better ability to compete," Blair said.
While Main Street will always have a place for some small casinos, Blair wants to see Deadwood's main drag promote more than just slots. His idea: play up Deadwood's Western flair as well as its historic significance.
"I'm a true believer that Deadwood of course is founded on gold mining, but also a major portion of its history was its Old West," he said. "We kept the history and heritage of the mining, but not as much the West."
For guidance, downtown Deadwood could look to other more successful tourist enclaves like Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Tombstone, Ariz., both of which play up their wild frontier heritage, according to Blair. Add a stagecoach or replicas of some original Deadwood buildings and they'd fit right into the mock gunfights and show trials of Jack McCall that the town hosts today.
McCall, the man who killed famous lawman Wild Bill Hickok, was captured around the site where one licensed gaming hall and eatery, Goldberg's, now stands shuttered. Down the street, a wooden sign notes the bar where McCall shot Hickok in a poker game. Next door is the Deadwood Badlands, another shuttered casino. Goldberg's is listed for sale at $1.2 million; Deadwood Bad Lands, listed under the name Wild West Winners Lucky Nugget Complex, is listed for $4.5 million.
Nearby, another casino, part of two properties listed as Bourbon Street Casino, is both up for sale and open for business. Underneath rows of New Orleans-style carnival masks, a lone slot player tinkered with a machine called Flame of Olympus on Thursday before heading out onto the street. Just off the strip, another gaming property, McKenna's Gold, is on the market.
Back out at Cadillac Jacks, people cluster around slot machines and a blackjack table. The black paint of a promotional Dodge Challenger reflects a barrage of casino lights. As Lester Karas, 85, heads home after his routine trip to the resort, he gives out some pieces of candy to a desk worker.
"Nothing is the same as it was then," said Karas, Deadwood's chief of police when gambling became legal in 1989. Though he plays the slots now, Karas says he didn't vote for the gaming back then. He's noticed the business moving over to the big operations like Cadillac Jacks, but he doesn't want play the prediction game.
"One of these days we might have this thing sitting empty," he said, jerking his thumb at the resort. "It's a dangerous business."