Legalized gambling began in Deadwood on Nov. 1, 1989, when an actor port­raying Wild Bill Hickok, accompanied by a woman portraying Calamity Jane, shot a revolver into the air.

This month the historic town celebrates not just 20 years of legalized gambling, but also the economic rejuvenation that has come along with it.

Before voters approved the change in the state constitution that allowed casinos to open in Deadwood, buildings around town were crumbling and businesses were dying. Then most of Main Street was converted to casinos. Real estate started to sell for far more than anyone had imagined.


The entertainment industry noticed. Actor Kevin Costner bought a casino after making his hit movie, Dances with Wolves, in South Dakota. HBO created an acclaimed series, Deadwood, that ran for three seasons and capitalized on the town’s notorious past. Characters in the show included Hickok, a real gunfighter who was killed in Deadwood during a poker game in 1876.

Today, Deadwood has about three dozen casinos, 3,500 slot machines and about 100 card tables, according to the state Gaming Commission. Over the years, the casino industry brought 2,000 jobs, millions of dollars in profits, and money for extensive renovations to Deadwood’s buildings and infrastructure.

The latest new local attraction is a new $47-million resort, The Lodge at Deadwood. It includes a four-storey hotel, convention centre, water park, restaurant, bar and casino. The hotel, water park and bar opened Nov. 6, and the casino and restaurant will be ready in early December.

“I think that’s kind of the next evolution, toward an even more broad-based entertainment venue,” State Senator Tom Nelson said.

Deadwood’s casinos are only allowed to offer slot machines and card games, including blackjack and poker, and bets in South Dakota may not exceed $100.

Nelson, a member of the committee that won approval for legalized gambling two decades ago, said the gambling industry may eventually ask to add craps and roulette in Deadwood. But he said supporters probably won’t push the idea in next year’s legislative session, because lawmakers will work mostly on balancing the state budget while revenues are declining. Nelson also said he doubts any effort will be made to change the bet limit.

Ken Gienger, president of the Deadwood Gaming Association and general manager of the Celebrity Hotel, says the industry is not yet ready to ask state voters for changes.

“We’ve had discussions, but nothing definitive,” he said.

Meanwhile, Deadwood is working on attracting more visitors by offering music acts and other entertainment, Nelson added.

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