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Gambling fever has ill effects

Published Oct. 6, 2005

He was a dead ringer for Capt. Kangaroo. But the resemblance ended with his quick smile, full sideburns and big-pockets coat, for he was a troubled man.

The problem he perceived was right in front of him. As a matter of fact, he was even a piece of the problem, on a part-time basis.

He had agreed to early retirement from the hemisphere's largest gold mine, a few miles away in Lead. But he needed to be busy, he told me, and he could use the extra cash his new job brought.

While he had struck up a conversation with me as I passed by on Main Street, he had to stop, too, every now and then to hold open the door of the old hotel where we stood.

He was a doorman in a pseudo-Edwardian overcoat, and his customers were tourists drawn to this storied gold-rush town prospecting for their own fortunes. Instead of heading into the dreary Black Hills of folk-song fame, they hoped to strike it rich on Main Street. Just a few blocks long, the narrow avenue is lined almost entirely by storefront gambling dens.

There are a couple of real hotels, like the one my talkative chum worked at, plus several bars and a few restaurants _ but most exist as places to station the maximum 30 gaming devices or tables allowed by state law.

"There's no drug store here anymore," the doorman was saying. "No clothing store. That used to be a menswear store right there" _ he pointed diagonally across the street _ "and the upstairs was turned into apartments, for people on welfare. But now it's a casino, too.

"If I want to buy a pair of pants, I have to leave town, go over to the store between here and Lead."

While decrying the near-elimination of retailing in Deadwood _ my walks around town showed he hardly exaggerated _ the doorman didn't want me to use his name: He needed the money his part-time work provided.

Just the same, he was quick to beckon over a friend to bolster the contention that most casino-related jobs were either part-time or near-minimum wage.

The newcomer to our conversation drove a battered van among the 88 casinos in Deadwood, repairing and emptying the coin-operated gambling machines. The van sagged from the weight of his collections.

Once his employer merely filled candy and soda vending machines, and this one helper was all he needed. Now, that owner had turned the business over to his sons, and their employees made the casino rounds all day long.

The stroll along Main Street was tantalizing, and disappointing.

This was once a frontier town so wide open that Wild Bill Hickok was murdered here while playing cards _ he held the notorious "dead man's hand" of black aces and black eights. You can see his "death chair" hanging over the door in the latest version of the No. 10 Saloon, across the street from the location of the original saloon.

Bill is buried in the cemetery overlooking town; next to him is the grave of Calamity Jane.

And until 1989, most of the town was dead or dying, too.

Deadwood had declined from its frontier heyday of the 1870s. The Homestake Gold Mine controls any significant mining, and the prostitutes were chased out of town a few decades ago.

Then, a statewide vote in November 1988 sanctioned gambling, with bet limits, for the town. Under the constitutional amendment, Deadwood would receive some of the gambling revenue, but it had to be committed to historic preservation and authentic renovation. Committees of citizens make the choices about how to spend the money, which amounted to $5.6-million for the fiscal year 1992-93.

The town came charging back to life, with families and bus tours of Midwesterners clogging Main Street and vying with construction workers for parking lot and sidewalk space.

Whatever commercial property did not already hold slots or card tables was bought up and turned into mock-frontier casinos. Even the dilapidated but venerable Bullock Hotel, dating to the 19th century, was renovated _ with much of its street-level floorspace becoming a casino.

The entire town has been designated a National Historic Landmark. But gambling has replaced what shred of small-town America was left in Deadwood.

Not that the casino owners are evil. It's just that they won't stop opening faux frontier bars as gambling halls.

Of course, all of their places would have been overwhelmed by the opening of a 320-table casino/resort, proposed by actor Kevin Costner. He filmed most of his Dances With Wolves epic not far from Deadwood, and he already owns a large casino/bar in town, the Midnight Star.

But he wanted to spend $65-million on a conference center/resort on 85 acres within the city limits. Costner and his brother Dan said it would employ between 600 and 800 people, with "wages expected to exceed $12-million annually" and millions more in annual gambling revenues, sales taxes and hotel taxes.

To generate all that money, the Costners said, they needed to have bet limits raised from the state-mandated $5 to $100, and to raise the number of card tables and slots from the maximum of 30 to 320.

The residents of South Dakota said no thanks, rejecting the proposal by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent five months ago.

Not that the spread of gambling is halted here. Among those opposed to the mega-casino were many of the state's Native Americans, who already operate casinos on their reservations and didn't want competition of that magnitude.

The Indians know how to do it right. According to a gambling analyst quoted in Newsday, Foxwoods in Ledyard, Conn., owned by the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, is the most successful casino in the world, taking in upwards of a million dollars a day.

On the banks of the Mississippi, nearly every state has allowed casinos to open on mock riverboats. The region around Gulfport, Miss., once noted as a seasonal golf and beach resort, now has 10 casinos, with another set to open in April that will employ 1,900.

"We have good problems, like traffic congestion," boasted David Armstrong. The former mayor of Natchez is now the assistant executive director for Harrison County, Miss., tourism.

And so it goes in America, a nation in which 49 of the 50 states have some form of legal gambling _ from government-sponsored lotteries to betting on animals and humans in various competitions, to playing poker against video machines. A paperback titled Casino/Resort Riverboat and Fun Book Guide, a brief but thorough directory of places to gamble, has expanded from 58 pages in the 1993 edition to 94 pages this year.

In case you're wondering, only Hawaii does not have legalized gambling. But it does have plenty of drug stores and menswear shops in the small towns.