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California Dreamin'

Harrah's Resort Southern California celebrates $160 million expansion

California Dreamin'

Fifteen years ago, the spot where Harrah’s Resort Southern California now sits, including a casino and two 21-story hotel towers, was a slow and sleepy community—a 6,000-acre reservation where the traffic would often come to halt because a cow had decided to stand in the middle of the road. Just as often, two cars would stop while the drivers chatted.

The casino and the 500-member tribe that owns it have come a long way since then. The casino came first by way of a Sprung structure (kind of a tent) that was filled with slot machines, and was only several years later followed by the casino and the first 21-story tower.

The resort (until recently known as Harrah’s Rincon Resort & Casino) April 4 celebrated the grand opening of $160 million worth of improvements and a new marketing campaign—“The First Resort for Fun!”—designed to emphasize the non-gaming aspects of the resort as much as the slot machines and table games.

Visitors can paddle up to Southern California’s only swim-up bar, order a drink, and drift through the 400 feet of the Lazy River, which is part of a pool area called “Dive.” At another part of the resort, expert masseuses can pound them into very contented jelly. Or they can just sink their teeth into a world-class hot dog. It’s a resort that aims at world-class status in an out-of-the-way part of Southern California.

The improvements include a new 21-story hotel tower with 403 rooms that doubles the number of rooms available. They also include a 23,000-square-foot event center that seats 2,400; a total of nine dining options; six bars, including the Corked beer and wine bar; and Spikes, a craft cocktail bar.

The opening of the new enhancements includes the return of Pink’s Hot Dogs and the introduction of a new restaurant called The Earl of Sandwich, a new chain of baked sandwich restaurants owned by the noble British family, including the 14th Earl, John Montague, whose ancestor is credited with having invented the most famous of finger foods. This will be its second store in Southern California. That eatery’s claim to uniqueness is that every one of its sandwiches is baked fresh to order.

At the grand opening, Richard Pink, whose family started the original Pink’s Hot Dogs in Hollywood 75 years ago, declared enthusiastically, “Pink’s has finally reopened,” after many months of being closed. He repeated the family slogan, “When you bite into it, it snaps and the juices flow!”

Pink’s has a reputation among the glitterati. Orson Welles is said to have established a personal best at the original Pink’s by downing 18 hot dogs in a sitting, while today luminaries such as Steve Martin and Katy Perry regularly drop by for a nosh.

The name change at Harrah’s accompanies the expansion, and emphasizes the fact that the resort is being sold more as a world-class casino resort than as a regional Indian casino based in Valley Center. So, somewhat rare for an Indian casino, the name of the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians is no longer a part of the brand now.

Interviewed last month by the San Diego Union Tribune, Tribal Chairman Bo Mazzetti explained, “This was a business decision made by the full council. If we’re going to do what we set out to do, which is to be a world-class facility and attract people from Russia, China and the United States, you have to have something attractive, something that people will understand. How many people are familiar with Valley Center or Rincon?”

The $160 million price tag, the largest expenditure since the casino opened 14 years ago, is actually Phase VII of a development plan that was approved years ago. The construction began in October 2011 and continued while the casino remained open.

Joe Martinez, the project manager for Sierra Building Solutions, discusses some of the challenges of tying the various elements of the property together in a way that looked organic. “A lot of us have been around from day one,” he says. “Rincon has been part of me for 15 years.” He recalled the cattle crossing the road in front of them during construction. “When you have to tie two towers together, that’s not an easy thing.”

Also with the project from its inception was John Finn, the recently elected California president of W.E. O’Neil Construction, the original contractor.

During his remarks at the ribbon-cutting, Mazzetti noted that the tribe was able to finance the $160 million expansion “on our own credit-worthiness, which is a big deal for the tribe.” The various improvements make Harrah’s the fourth largest hotel property in San Diego County, and a property that Harrah’s is referring to in television ads as “Palm Vegas.”

The celebration April 4 included a ribbon-cutting, with the resort’s General Manager Janet Beronio introducing other speakers, who included Rincon tribal chairman Mazzetti, Assemblywoman Marie Waldron of the 75th Assembly District, and Brad Friedmutter, CEO of the Friedmutter Group, which has overseen the casino resort’s design from its inception. He looked out into the vast space of the 2,400-seat event center and said, “This is a huge room that gives this property a huge edge in entertainment. This is a resort where all of the pieces come together. The new hotel is planned around the old hotel and blends into the new façade.”

Guests included members of the Rincon tribal council. It took place in the huge events center, a structure large enough to contain the concerts that used to be held outdoors.

Tom Jenkins, the regional vice president for Caesars, declared, “This has evolved into a world-class resort. We are thrilled to have been part of it.”

The new marketing campaign for Harrah’s Southern California Resort is two-pronged: 1. See it Up Close; and, 2. The First Resort for Fun. The goal, says Jenkins, is to shift the perception from gaming to a resort, where you can do a lot more than just gamble.

“We are not just a resort. We are not just a casino. We fall somewhere in the middle.”