Casino women of Black Hawk, Central City
By Vi Cooper
The pundits may call them the gentler sex, yet the women in the top echelons of the gaming world of Black Hawk and Central City are dynamos in a field long dominated by men, wielding influence far greater than their numbers would suggest.
The Colorado Gambler pays tribute to each of these women who have carved a niche for themselves in our mountain communities.
Shirley Smith, owner Wild Card, Sasquatch, and Black Hawk Station, Black Hawk
Shirley Smith, who is generally considered the doyenne of the casino women, started at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, intending to be a large animal veterinarian. Having grown up on a farm in New Castle with horses and cattle, she had handled these animals all her life. But that dream bumped up against the now archaic rule that women could only attend CSU’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital to treat small animals.
“So,” says husband Ed, “she quit and got married.”
The Smiths opened Black Hawk’s first casino, Wild Card, on Oct. 1, 1991, at 8 a.m., a date and time etched in her memory. Managing three casinos, as well as running a household of four children, kept Smith’s hands full.
Now, with all four of the Smith children engaged in some aspect of casino management and equipment, she has slightly more time for her hobbies of snowmobiling, four-wheeling and hunting, but mostly, she prefers spending time with her 11 grandchildren.
Smith is optimistic about the future of the industry, but is watching the 12 upcoming ballot measures covering legislation on video lottery terminals, horse racing and gaming limits that are cleared for voter approval this fall.
Sherri Summers, vice president and general manager, Ameristar Casino Resort Spa, Black Hawk
Sherri Summers runs the high-rise that is Ameristar with what her colleagues describe as an integrated and profit-focused approach. Starting out on an Idaho farm, she headed for International Air Academy (now the International Air and Hospitality Academy) in Vancouver, Wash., after her high school graduation.
After four years working in aviation in Texas, Summers returned to Idaho and applied for an administrative assistant job at Cactus Pete’s Resort Casino, located just south of the Idaho border in Jackpot, Nev. From there, she moved up through the ranks to become hotel manager, director of hotel operations, assistant and then acting general manager.
Next stop was Caesars Tahoe Resort Casino, Lake Tahoe for two years as director of hotel operations before heading back to Jackpot as senior vice president and general manager and ultimately landing at Ameristar Black Hawk in 2012.
Summers calls her mother her biggest cheerleader and says her mom’s love and support made her who she is today. She also credits former Ameristar colleague Angie Frost for providing professional guidance during her early casino career.
Summers is married with two daughters and two granddaughters. In her free time, she enjoys travel, shopping and sitting down with a good book.
Shannon Keel, general manager, Reserve Casino Hotel, Central City
Hailing from Hacienda Heights, Calif., Shannon Keel headed for California State University, Long Beach to major in business marketing with an emphasis on hospitality management and food services. She got her start in the hotel industry at a grand location, working at the largest Hyatt hotel outside of Las Vegas, the Hyatt Regency Chicago, where she stayed for four years. She then moved to the Hyatt in Lake Tahoe as human resources manager. That was her start with the gaming side of the Hyatt Corporation, where she got her first taste of the gambling industry.
She’s been general manager at the Reserve for a year and foresees a slow but steady recovery for Colorado gaming, but, she says, it’s not going to be easy.
“It won’t be like it used to be,” she says, “when you could just open your doors and people would flock in. Since the economy crashed in 2008, people are spending their money differently, they’re saving money differently. Besides, there are more casinos here now, more competition for the guests’ dollars.”
Her mother, Keel says, is a strong-willed independent person who always supported her in her life choices. Her mom, who works in health services administration in California, will visit Keel and her husband Joseph in their Arvada home this month, and, with a visiting aunt, help the Keels put in their sizable garden. Along with gardening, Keel enjoys running and watching sports.
Tara Aragon, director of marketing, Isle Casino Hotel Black Hawk
Colorado native Tara Aragon grew up practically next door to Black Hawk in Idaho Springs and graduated from Clear Creek High School. Unsure of future direction, she headed for Cheyenne, Wyo., where she tended bar while attending classes at Laramie Community College.
After a while, she decided to head for home, and applied for what she thought was a summer job at the Riviera Casino as an administrative assistant.
“My office was right next door to marketing, and they always needed help,” she said.
She became advertising coordinator, moving to Isle of Capri as a data base manager in 2008. From that post, four years later she was named director of marketing.
Aragon credits her parents for passing on their strong work ethic and says they have always supported her. Mom and dad moved to Black Hawk, Aragon says, which gives her a place to stay on snowy winter days if she prefers not to drive to her Arvada home.
Aragon enjoys riding her bicycle and attending summer concerts. She recently took up golf and says, “It’s not as relaxing as they say.”
Loralee Lamping, guest services operations center manager Lady Luck and Isle Casino Hotel Black Hawk
Denverite Loralee Lamping was working for a beer company when her job required driving past a certain blackjack dealer school. That school piqued the interest of the Bear Creek High graduate who studied business at the University of Colorado Denver campus. She decided to give it a try, and wound up dealing blackjack and opening Johnny Z’s, as well as at jobs with several other casinos..
Lamping enjoyed her first five years in the gaming world, even joining Ladbroke’s and heading to Cancun to open a casino there. While in Mexico, she was promoted to cage manager and learned even more about managing operations than she had as a dealer.
Returning to Colorado, Lamping moved to Black Hawk and lived in the Valentine House there for several years. She now lives in Lakewood with her husband and 12-year-old daughter.
Lamping credits Gwen Walden, her manager at Bullwhackers, with honing her skills as a cage manager.
“Gwen had faith in me when I had very little faith in myself,” she said. “She taught me every aspect of money management and cage operations, which led me to where I am today.”
Besides her passion for the gaming world, Lamping is an avid golfer.
Carolyn McCoy, advertising and promotions specialist, Saratoga Casino, Black Hawk
Army brat Carolyn McCoy moved around the country a lot growing up with an Army journalist dad. After graduating from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, where she studied hospitality, she broke into the gaming world with a five-week stint as a bartender before moving into marketing operations.
McCoy credits her mother, a single parent of three children, for instilling within her a strong work ethic.
“Although she was a workaholic while raising us, she always made time for her kids,” she said.
McCoy is a parent herself, having just returned from maternity leave after the birth of her now three-month old daughter, Avery. The McCoys live in Nederland.
When asked about her outlook for the industry, Carolyn says she hopes gaming remains a personal activity, with guests coming to the casinos to participate actively, not isolated in online gambling.