North County casinos hit boom times

North County casinos hit boom times
Pala Casino broke ground in October on a $170 million expansion, including a new 349-room hotel tower and aquatic playground. Three Indian casinos have drawn major reinvestment recently to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Courtesy drawing

REGION — Re-investent in casinos is about as common as casinos themselves. After all, who wants to play in a dumpy, old casino?

“Gaming in most markets is a very competitive industry,” said Bill Bembenek, CEO of Pala Casino Spa & Resort. “For that reason, in competitive markets such as Southern California, it is true that gaming companies typically reinvest in their properties in rather significant ways on average every five to 10 years.”

However, Bembenek said, what’s happening with the Indian casinos in the San Diego area right now, particulary in the North County, is not that garden variety of re-investment. 

This is booming business.

Seven of the San Diego area’s 10 casinos either are upgrading now or recently opened an upgrade. Estimates put the total value of these capital improvements at about $1 billion. An eighth San Diego-area casino, Hollywood Casino Jamul-San Diego, celebrated its one-year anniversary in October.

Leading the way are the three North County casinos — Pala, Valley View Casino and Harrah’s Resort Southern California.

Pala broke ground last month on a $170 million improvement, which will add a 349-room hotel tower and an aquatic playground while increasing parking and casino floor space. The addition comes on the heels of a $50 million improvement to add a new stage at its Starlight Theater (which has a wine cave buried beneath it) and a new outdoor entertainment venue and restaurant named Luis Rey’s on Pala’s back terrace.

Valley View Casino has announced plans for a $50 million expansion project that will increase its casino size by more than 42,000 square feet while adding a beer-and-burger themed restaurant.

Harrah’s Resort Southern California recently added a craft brewery and a larger spa, salon and barber shop in a $160 million overhaul.

Put that all together, and it’s about $430 million in improvements just for the three North County casinos.

“Each of the North County casinos and each of the casinos in San Diego County have their own unique attributes that differentiate them from one another,” Bembenek said. “What is great for Southern California gaming consumers is that the casinos in Southern California are some of the most up-to-date and well run casinos in the U.S.”

None of the casinos discloses proprietary information, such as traffic numbers and gaming participation, but the impetus for the improvements is clear.

“It is evident that visitation to casinos in Southern California has increased over the past five years,” Bembenek said. “Part of this visitation increase is a result of improved consumer confidence, improved employment rates and a stable and improved housing market in So Cal compared to 2008-2010.”

With increased casino activity and expanded casinos comes expanded employment. Valley View CEO Bruce Howard said the improvements in his casino will include about 80 new jobs. Pala’s upgrade will add 200 resort jobs, a 10 percent staff increase. That’s in addition to 400 construction jobs.

“We are always looking for new ways to enhance our guests’ experience,” Howard said. “This expansion and renovation will be the perfect way for our guests to enjoy dining and gaming at the highest level.”

What is especially interesting about the casino expansions is that they’re not, generally, driven by tourism. It is, by and large, local customers and local money.

“We are a regional gaming resort destination and predominately serve Southern Californians,” Bembenek said. “We have guests who visit us from out of state, as well. But again, we are focused on offering the best casino resort experience possible to Southern California residents.” He added that many of their guests also visit Las Vegas.

The point, though, is that they don’t have to.

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