Wall Street is hot for "locals casinos." Even in Las Vegas, which draws tourists from around the world, the steadiest stocks are those of Station Casinos, which draw from just around the block. The theory is that this is the future of gaming--a steady low-roller clientele that treats the casino like a weekly visit to a movie theater, spending a few hours at the slots, grabbing a burger, dropping off a bet on the home team, then hitting the road.
So welcome to the ultimate locals casino. The Dostal Alley Saloon was the first casino to open for business after the passage of Amendment 4 in Colorado in 1991. And now, almost exactly ten years later, it has grown to . . . well, to be the smallest casino in America. It's tough to expand in a town whose population peaked in the year 1900, at 3,114, and has been more or less steadily declining ever since. (Today there are 325 hardy souls who claim Central City as home.) Tougher still to find more room for slot machines in a building originally designed in 1878 to house the tiny Quiller and Gabardi grocery store.
But for the residents of Central City, appalled by the mega- casinos of neighboring Black Hawk, where mountains are shaved and rocky cliffs dismantled to make way for more and more gambling, the Dostal Alley ambience is just right. A bar, a little four- booth dining area, and exactly 71 slot machines are all that's required. "Many of our customers can walk here," says manager Jamie Joyce. "It's like a little club where they can hang out every day."
When gaming was first legalized in 1991, the Dostal Alley Saloon was the blueprint for what everyone expected to see as the future. Central City was already a popular summer tourist destination, perfectly preserved from its days as a 19th-century gold-mining town, where the handsome Opera House presented crowd- pleasing musicals in the winter and hosted a jazz festival in summer. But the jazz festival ended in 1992 and the funky little gift shops and mining tours started closing their doors to make way for casino retrofits. Typical of the old-style tourist attractions was an Old West Museum next door to the Dostal Alley, where signs advertised "free admission"--but visitors had to pay a fee in order to get out. That became the over-the-top Papone's Casino, which operated for several years and then closed its doors, leaving the storefronts vacant.
In fact, most of the storefronts on Main Street are vacant again today. By 1992, within six months after the legalization of gambling, there were 14 thriving casinos along Main Street and the surrounding area, but the City Council suddenly passed a moratorium on further building, alarmed that the original goal of historic preservation was being abandoned. Among the 34 disappointed applicants was Stan Fulton, founder of Anchor Gaming, who was so furious over losing his investment in Central City land that he moved his operation to neighboring Black Hawk, dynamited the side of a mountain to make way for parking, and opened up the Colorado Central Station Casino--ten times larger than any previous building in Central City or Black Hawk.
That move opened the floodgates, and Central City's boom didn't last. Sheer momentum, and the slow pace of building in Black Hawk, carried the city through 1997, but one after another, the little western-themed casinos closed their doors, and one after another, the Vegas-style casinos in Black Hawk replaced them. Gamblers, it seemed, didn't much care about quaintness, especially when they couldn't find parking on the steep, narrow Central City streets. Central City ended up with the worst of both worlds--a boom that destroyed their traditional tourist economy, and a bust that cleaned out their casino business. Today there are seven casinos left in Central City, but the only one of any size is Harvey's Wagon Wheel, recently acquired by Harrah's, located on a plot of land isolated from the town proper.
Through it all, the little Dostal Alley Saloon just hung in there. The owners, Bruce and Sandy Schmalz, had operated two little tourist businesses, the T-Shirt Corner and the Rock Shop, since 1962, so when they opened the casino in 1991, they did little more than put 44 slots and a food area in their cellar. But eventually there was no market for T-shirts or souvenir rocks, so in 1999 the inheritors of the business, Buddy Schmalz and his sister Lisa Bolter, closed the original stores and converted everything to slot machines and a small bar. The main gathering time is happy hour, and it's the same faces every night. They've survived because they know all their customers by name.
They did make one other change. When they closed the rock shop, they rechristened the place the Dostal Alley Brewpub & Casino, but nobody was buying it. It's the Dostal Alley Saloon, famous as the place where the fire of 1874 started in a Chinese laundry, and where, for a brief moment in 1991, it looked like Central City would become Las Vegas East. Instead it become Elko in the off season. But that's just fine with them; for $4.25 you can get a great meatball sandwich, and there's always a bar stool available.
DOSTAL ALLEY BREWPUB & CASINO
Main Street, Central City, Colo.
Theme: Old West history
Total Investment: Hundreds, if not thousands.
Known For: Pizza, chicken wings, draft beer.
Marketing niche: Locals, occasional lost tourists
Gambler's Intensity: Low
Cocktail speed: Get your own
Surrounding area: Historic picturesque Main Street is
perfectly preserved. Other casinos on the street include the Doc Holliday, Easy Street, The Famous Bonanza, and Lucky Strike.
Overall rating: 70
Joe Bob's bankroll: Down $20 after dropping a few coins into an Aristocrat machine: -$98