For Deadwood, S.D., the future's a gamble

  • Article by: STEVEN YACCINO , New York Times
  • Updated: July 10, 2014 - 8:15 PM

Hold ’em, fold ’em or walk away? Rebuilt by casinos, Deadwood now struggles.

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Sharon Fletcher gambles at Cadillac Jack's Gambling Resort in Deadwood, S.D., July 2, 2014. The town of Deadwood has been going through an identity crisis as it tries to figure out how to combine its casinos and concerts, outlaw history and outdoor recreation into a cohesive and competitive image. (Eric Ginnard/The New York Times)

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

For more than a century, the promise of fortune has drawn outsiders to Deadwood, a gold-rush settlement in the Black Hills of South Dakota. But where saloons and brothels once lined Main Street, storefronts today draw tourists with a different lure: blinking slot machines.

Few shopkeepers here dress in frontier attire anymore. Century-old bars have been replaced by spinning sevens and casino lights. Harley-Davidsons park where hitching posts once stood.

“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 wants 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.”

Gambling brought Deadwood back to life a quarter-century ago, when South Dakota followed Nevada and New Jersey and became the third state to legalize gambling. In a city of 1,200 residents, taxes from three dozen casinos have funneled money into historic-building restorations, a new museum and municipal improvements.

But as gambling grows in other states, drawing the masses to this remote destination may depend on whether Deadwood can remake its brand. A “revitalization” committee is holding meetings this week to take stock of the city’s strengths — its casinos and concerts, its outlaw history — and somehow package them into one cohesive, competitive image.

“What do they have in Deadwood that can’t be found closer to home?” asked Roger Brooks, a tourism consultant hired to help Deadwood. “Whatever we come up with, we have to deliver on that promise.”

The stuff of history

Since the 1870s, Deadwood has been known as a place of lawlessness, debauchery and legend — home to Calamity Jane and resting place of Wild Bill Hickok, the gambling gunslinger who was killed at a poker table while holding a two pair — aces and eights, which came to be known in the game’s parlance as a “dead man’s hand.”

About 50 miles north of Mount Rushmore, Deadwood has for decades lured families, bikers and other travelers off the highway to explore its downtown, which received a National Historic Landmark designation in 1961. Preservation concerns reached critical mass after a fire engulfed a historic building in 1987, leading to the formation of a “Deadwood You Bet” group that lobbied lawmakers to allow gambling.

Deadwood’s first casinos opened two years later, bringing in $145 million in bets to the Black Hills during the first eight months. Kevin Costner, whose movie “Dances with Wolves” was filmed in South Dakota, opened his own casino and restaurant.

So many out-of-towners flooded Deadwood then, one casino had to empty machines three times a day, said Mary Larson, who ran Deadwood Dick’s. “If you had a pulse, you could have a job,” she said.

Casino struggles

Larson and her husband, known as Deadwood Dave, have only three slot machines left. They have converted their former space into a hotel, bar and antiques shop, selling cowboy collectibles and Western bric-a-brac to visitors from larger casinos. Other establishments, too, have struggled to keep up with the more corporate gambling operations, which have been slowly expanding after South Dakota raised its bet limit from $5 to $100 in 2000; it was raised to $1,000 in 2012.

But now that 48 states have legalized some form of gambling, betting in Deadwood has slowed. Revenue from gambling fell 4 percent last year over the year before.

Ron Russo, the chairman and founder of the branding committee, said that meetings so far had focused on overhauling the tourism experience on the three-block Main Street.

Russo bought the Fairmont Hotel and Oyster Bar downtown just weeks after South Dakota approved gambling. He has poured his life savings into restoring the former brothel, but he struggles to make ends meet.

Outside, tourists gather daily at 4 p.m., their backs turned to his gambling parlor as they applaud performers.

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  • Left: Reenactor Andy Mosher portrayed bounty hunter Turkey Creek Johnson on the historic Main Street in Deadwood, S.D. The town has been going through an identity crisis as it tries to figure out how to combine its casinos, concerts, outlaw history and outdoor recreation into a cohesive and competitive image.Below: Sharon Fletcher was a lonely gambler at Cadillac Jack’s Gambling Resort in Deadwood on July 2.

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