San Diego's Casino
By Marty Graham
In the past 21 years, the tribal gaming industry in San Diego County has grown from a bingo hall and card room at the once-tiny Sycuan Casino to a $1 billion industry that pumps hundreds of millions of dollars in jobs, purchases and donations into surrounding communities. The tribes and casinos have matured into diversified businesses, world-class resorts and good neighbors.
With eight casinos in the county, a part-time slot arcade and two more casinos in the works, gaming and its sister resorts are a growth industry.
The casinos are evolving into destination resorts with golf courses, first-class spa facilities, shopping, terrific chefs and great restaurants.
Several casinos now have concert venues, and even more expansion is planned.
The casinos offer a wide range of entertainment. The big four—the Pala Casino & Resort, Barona Valley Ranch & Casino, the Viejas Casino and the Sycuan Casino & Re-sort—have grown into full-service resorts and convention centers with amenities that compare to Las Vegas resorts—with better weather and lower prices.
By the end of the year, the Rincon San Luiseno Band of Mission Indians, in partnership with Harrah’s Inc., will open a hotel of the same magnitude. Others, including the Pauma Band of Mission Indians, the Campo Band’s Golden Acorn and the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians’ Valley View Casino, continue to focus on food and gaming—for now. The smallest, an arcade operated by the La Jolla Band, is open only on weekends but offers camping and a host of outdoor activities.
“Most of our customers—about 85 percent—still come from the San Diego area,” says Adam Day, a spokesman for Sycuan, “and we remain very committed to and very active in our community.”
That community interest translates into tens of millions of dollars in charitable contributions since the casinos opened, including donations to Children’s Hospital, the American Cancer Society and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. A report by the county last year estimates the gaming tribes donated more than $7 million to local charities in the year 2000.
According to Harrah’s Rincon spokesman Marty Goldman, there’s more to come. Rincon already supports dozens of charities, including the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Habitat for Humanity and the Multiple Sclerosis Society, and gave tens of thousands of dollars to help local fire victims last year.
“As we grow, our ability to give back to our community grows,” Goldman says, “and we are looking forward to being more active than ever.”
The economic benefits of the casinos are hard to pin down. The tribes are sovereign governments with no requirement to disclose information. The most detailed information available comes from a county report prepared by analyst Chantal Saipes in November 2000 and updated in April 2003, and from the tribes themselves.
When the report was written, about 12,000 people were working at the casinos in jobs that offer competitive wages and benefits packages, as well as aggressive programs for personal and professional advancement. The county report estimates the combined 2003 payrolls at more than $270 million.
Some casinos, including Barona, offer childcare for employees, who can also take free classes ranging from English as a second language to lessons in blackjack dealing. Barona has a payroll of nearly $90 million for its 3,175 employees.
The retention rate at casinos is high, casino spokespeople say.
“Golden Acorn employs a lot of people from nearby communities who haven’t had a chance at the jobs, the wages and full benefits that we offer,” says Ed Sites, the casino’s director of marketing. “The jobs have a lot of flexibility, and the wages are good—a blackjack dealer can make $50,000 to $70,000 a year.
“This industry is good for the area,” he says. “It has added restaurants, golf courses, entertainment venues and hotel rooms that promise a steady increase in visitors and revenue—and jobs.”
The number of jobs is steadily increasing at the casinos and their sister businesses.
Currently, Harrah’s Rincon is a construction zone, according to Goldman, the casino’s vice president of marketing. The casino has 1,600 slots and 46 game tables in its 54,000-square-foot casino. It also has a 200-room hotel and six restaurants.
Harrah’s Rincon is building a 21-story hotel tower with 450 rooms, including 101 suites, and additional meeting space. Rincon will also have a spa with a lush, tropical pool surrounded by gardens, cabañas and Jacuzzis. Another 12,000 square feet are being added to the casino, along with a 1,200-car parking garage.
The new space will boost jobs at Rincon from 1,300 to about 1,600. “When we open in November, we’ll be the largest casino in North County,” Goldman says. By the time Rincon opens its resort, the number of people employed in the tribal businesses will exceed 14,000, observers say.
Meanwhile, casino earnings have made it possible for the tribes to diversify. Viejas is now a major shareholder in a national bank. Sycuan now owns three golf courses, including the Singing Hills Golf Club & Hotel. Singing Hills, a 100-room lodge, is about 3 miles west of the casino and offers guests the use of three golf courses and 11 tennis courts on its 425-acre slice of mountainous back country.
The tribal leaders have also purchased the historic U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego and are partners in enterprises building two more hotels, one near Petco Park and a second, with a conference center, on the bayfront in National City.
“The tribal leaders had the foresight to create a vehicle for their vision, and after voters approved our mission, they had the means to finance it,” Day says. “The tribe sees gaming as a means to improve tribal members’ lives.”
Viejas built a 57-store outlet mall across Willows Road from its Alpine casino, where many county residents shop. The Viejas complex was also the first to sponsor concerts by national acts in its Concerts under the Stars series.
The casino spent just under $85 million purchasing goods and services last year, spokesperson Nikki Symington says, including contracts with neighboring fire departments for service, and works on joint projects with community groups.
Earnings by tribes running gaming facilities have been pumped back into local tribal communities, including profit-sharing for tribes that lack their own casinos. In the past few years, the tribes have built state-of-the-art medical facilities, schools and libraries on the reservations, and the shared income has meant local Native Americans are living better than ever—and receive less federal and state assistance than ever before, the county report notes.
The casinos and their offshoot businesses also contribute to the local economy by purchasing most of their goods and services in the county, an estimated $363 million in 2003. The 2,000 vendors include providers of food and beverage, linen, accounting and legal services and contracts with transportation companies. The opening of the Pala Resort complex late last year, the upcoming resort at Rincon and growth in the other casinos should drive that figure at least 25 percent higher by the end of 2005.
Golf courses, conference centers and world-class spas are the next wave of expansion at the casinos as they shift from gaming for day-trippers to destination resorts.
Barona’s golf course has been rated fourth best in California by Golf Course Magazine, spokesman David Baron says. The ranch is working on plans for a $250 million expansion next year.
“The hotel is nearly always full, and our convention business is growing by leaps and bounds because we offer a lot of amenities at reasonable prices,” Barona operations manager Karol Schoen says. “Now that we have our hotel, we get far more customers from Orange County and Los Angeles, and people who don’t even play are coming for weekend getaways. We’re doing a wonderful wedding and conference business—our wedding chapel is in a beautiful location next to the lake.”
Pala, which opened in August, is already making a splash with its spa facility, the largest in a casino in San Diego County. The 10,000-square-foot spa has private indoor and outdoor treatment rooms and offers a full line of European treatments and massages.
Both Rincon and Pauma plan to build spa facilities in the next two years.
Three of the casinos—Pala, Sycuan and Viejas—have concert venues that draw local music lovers into East and North County. Sycuan’s Showcase Theater, a 450-seat acoustical gem, hosts performers like John Hiatt, Keiko Matsui and the Kingston Trio, along with prominent Vietnamese, Filipino and Latino acts.
The Viejas complex is also home to an outlet mall with beautiful courtyards that serve as open-air theaters for presentations and music events. The Concerts in the Park series has featured musical acts like Ray Charles, Lyle Lovett and Al Green.
Pala’s Palomar Starlight Theater includes coming concerts by Julio Iglesias, Tony Bennett and Michael Bolton. Its ballroom has weekly karaoke and country line-dancing nights.
Nearly all of the nine casinos and arcades are expanding or planning expansion, and many are diversifying into other entertainment areas. By 2003, the tribes had funded more than $860 million in construction in the county, and that number has risen by at least $100 million since then, according to Viejas’ Symington.
Viejas donated money to about 450 community organizations last year, she says.
The tribes have been generous with their earnings, pumping the money back into local nonprofit service providers and community groups. The largest enterprises, Barona, Sycuan and Viejas, donated more than $10 million last year, topping their own previous records.
“Sycuan contributes several million each year to all kinds of nonprofits,” says Day. “We focus on health and welfare, public safety and education, but there is so much need out there that we try to do the best we can for everyone who comes to us.” The Alzheimer’s Association, the Multiple Sclerosis Society and Barrio Station all benefited from Sycuan’s largesse this year, Day says.
Barona gave between $6 million and $8 million in the past five years, according to spokesman David Baron.
“It’s part of the tribal culture that the tribes have always shared,” he says. “One of the first donations was to the San Diego Symphony when it was in danger of bankruptcy. There was a half-million dollars to Sharp Hospital for a cardiac wing, and many donations to groups that serve youth.”
Earlier this year, the Barona tribe was recognized by Mothers Against Drunk Driving for the donations and support that the tribe has given them over the years.
Viejas gives at least $1.5 million a year to community groups, Symington says.
“It’s hard to pin the exact number down because it can come from so many different places in our budget [and) in so many different forms,” she says. Viejas has sponsored dozens of activities and groups, including the American Red Cross, the Susan Komen Cancer Center, the Salvation Army and YMCA youth programs.
“We have programs for philanthropy; we are active in joint sponsorships for art and education; we have tribal contributions, the public relations budget and other ways of underwriting public service,” Symington says.
Even the smaller casinos have their charities and charms.
The Valley View Casino sponsored the Joe Lizura Golf Tournament for the past three years and has raised more than $300,000 for San Diego Children’s Hospital, according to vice president of marketing John Straus. It also supports local groups, donated $40,000 to Escondido’s Downtown Business Association and gave thousands of dollars to help victims of the Cedar Fire.
“We donate hundreds of thousands of dollars every year without any tax breaks,” Straus says. “This is our home, and we want to be involved in the fabric of our community.”
Valley View is planning an expansion in the next two years, Straus says.
Golden Acorn Casino, owned by the Campo Band of Kumeyaay Indians, is also San Diego County’s only truck stop, with showers and a television lounge for long-distance truckers, according to Ed Sites, the director of marketing. It also has special promotions, including the current game of “chicken tic-tac-toe,” in which 14 chickens play so well that it costs nothing to go up against them for a $2,500 jackpot, Sites says.
“We have a lot of fun here,” he says.