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Monday, Jun 5, 2023

Pala Takes a Gamble, Continues $100M Casino Expansion

Two county casinos are swimming against the recessionary tide, venturing into 2009 with capital improvement projects and modest staff increases.

Pala Casino Spa and Resort is building a long-planned, $100 million expansion, though the project is not quite the one envisioned in mid-2006.

“We ended up scaling it down,” said Bill Bembenek, the casino’s chief executive.

The more modest growth plan comes as the recession affects traffic at San Diego’s 10 casinos. In good times those casinos did $2 billion in business.

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During the past 15 months, Pala has been downsizing, cutting 300 employees through attrition. Now, to staff the expansion, the inland North County venue may add as many as 150 employees to its current 1,800-member work force. The casino plans to do the bulk of its hiring in April.

Bank of America is Pala’s lender for the 60,000-square-foot expansion. Pala lined up its financing “before the credit market seized up,” said Bembenek.

The expansion will create a new poker room and a larger high-limit room.

The project adds 15,000 square feet of gaming space, which will make for a total of 93,000 square feet on the gaming floor.

With a slowdown in Southern Californians’ gaming appetites mirroring the recession, however, Pala has reduced the number of its slot machines to 2,000 from 2,250 in 2006. Pala had originally planned for 2,500 machines.

Management also invested in new carpet and upholstery for the gaming spaces, and added more space to the back of the house.

The casino plans to give patrons nine dining options, adding Japanese and Mexican restaurants this spring. It’s also expanding its buffet 50 percent to 600 seats.

To prepare for the expansion, the Pala Band of Mission Indians paid to widen a portion of state Route 76, and added 400 spaces to its parking garage.

Pala executives plan to open the addition by Memorial Day.

The Lure Of Bennies

Several miles southeast, the Barona Valley Ranch Resort & Casino is spending $16 million to outfit three restaurants at its complex on the Barona Indian Reservation, said General Manager Rick Salinas. It’s also building up staff.

Like Pala, Barona cut staff by attrition, going from 3,500 jobs in 2007 to 2,960 jobs currently. Barona held a hiring fair Jan. 15 to fill 100 food service positions, promising incentives such as health, dental and life insurance.

Barona is creating a new Italian and a new seafood restaurant. It also plans to relocate and revamp its steakhouse.

Both Pala and Barona are updating their hotel rooms.

Barona is spending $3.1 million to renovate its five-year-old hotel, installing new draperies, carpeting and bedspreads as well as plumbing fixtures.

Pala is making cosmetic changes to its rooms, installing flat-panel televisions as well as docking stations for MP3 players. Plans for more rooms have been shelved.


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