Groundbreaking begins Pala Casino expansion project

Pala Casino Spa & Resort’s CEO Bill Bembenek addresses the crowd Tuesday, Oct. 17, during the resort’s ground-breaking ceremony at its $170 million expansion project. Kim Harris photo

Pala tribal chair Robert Smith removed an awning from a 14-year-old poolside kiosk with a bulldozer to commence the groundbreaking of Pala Casino’s expansion project, Oct. 17.

The $170 million expansion and renovation will include a new hotel tower, a larger pool area, a larger casino area, three additional levels on the hotel parking structure and an enlarged restaurant promenade.

“This is a proud moment for Pala,” Smith said. “This is a significant milestone for our tribe. We look forward to continuing to exceed expectations of our guests.”

The construction will take place in three phases with the pool area constituting the first phase. The pool deck is currently approximately 10,000 square feet, and when the renovations are completed the pool deck will cover approximately 18,000 square feet. The multi-pool area will also include additional cabanas, and guests will have opportunities to access 12 cabanas when the work is complete. The first phase is expected to be complete by May 2018.

“We have an aggressive construction schedule that begins today,” Pala chief executive officer Bill Bembenek said.

The other two phases will add the 348-room hotel tower on the north side of the existing hotel area, expand the hotel parking structure from four levels to seven, increase the casino area to 102,000 square feet, add a signature bar, remodel the restaurant promenade and refresh the existing casino interior and hotel tower. The completion of the full expansion and renovations is expected in late 2019.

Pala Casino opened April 3, 2001.

“Every minute of every hour of every day since that date this facility has been open to the public,” Bembenek said.

The resort, including the initial hotel tower and the pool, was added in 2003. An expansion in 2008 increased casino space, constructed a parking garage and added the Choices buffet and other restaurants. In 2011, Pala opened the 10,000-square-foot Infinity nightclub, which had been the Grand Cabaret before it was enclosed and upgraded. Pala’s 2015 project created the Cave restaurant including an underground wine cave, the outdoor patio bar and lounge at Luis Rey’s and a permanent stage for the outdoor Palomar Starlight Theater.

The current expansion project has been in the conceptual planning phases prior for some time.

“It’s going to come to fruition today,” Bembenek said.

In May 2016, a tribal-state gaming compact to allow the expansion of Pala Casino was approved. The compact was ratified by the state Legislature when Assembly Bill 629 passed all committees and both full chambers without an opposing vote. Lorena Gonzalez, who is now Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, wrote AB 629.

“Pala’s been such a great community partner,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher represents the 80th Assembly District in the southern part of San Diego County, but she is a Vista High School graduate and also chairs the state Assembly’s Appropriations Committee.

“This is quite an accomplishment,” she said of the groundbreaking.

Fletcher noted that the project will create 400 construction jobs and 200 permanent jobs which will complement Pala’s existing 2,000 jobs.

Randy Voepel represents the 71st Assembly District which has more Indian tribes than any other state lower house district in the United States.

“I represent the California tribe, and we’d like to congratulate Pala on their incredible journey,” he said.

Pala is in the 75th Assembly District, which is represented by Marie Waldron.

“Pala has been a great neighbor to the surrounding communities in our district,” Waldron said.

Waldron noted that the casino has had a positive economic impact on the region.

“We’re very grateful for that,” she said.

Pala’s contributions also include philanthropy, and the casino has allowed Pala to fund a fire department which contributes to the public safety of surrounding areas.

“Our region is a better place,” Waldron said.

Waldron presented a certificate of recognition at the ground-breaking ceremony from the state Assembly to Smith, as well as the comments shared by Waldron, Fletcher and Voepel.

The existing hotel tower has 507 rooms. The renovation will convert some of those rooms into larger suites, so the casino hotel will have 853 rooms after construction is completed: 749 deluxe rooms and 104 suites. The casino will have 2,500 slot machines, 88 table games and eight poker tables.

The parking garage included in the 2008 expansion is sufficient to handle the additional patrons who will take advantage of the expanded casino space, so the three new levels on the hotel parking garage will be the only additional parking included in the construction.

The hotel has 12,000 square feet of conference rooms. That figure will remain the same.

“That’s one area where we feel we are sufficient for our needs. We’re not into the large conventions,” Bembenek said.

Conferences can also be held in the Pala events center, which is a 20,000-square-foot room.

The need for more overnight lodging was the initial cause of the plans for the new expansion.

“Our 507-room hotel operates at full capacity,” Bembenek said. “We need more hotel rooms.”

During the past year, the hotel rooms had a 97 percent occupancy rate.

“We’re sold out every weekend,” Smith said. “Another 346 will keep our good guests coming.”

The decision was made to renovate other parts of the casino as well.

“Our property is 16 years old,” Bembenek said. “It’s time for an upgrade and a refresh.”

The May 2018 completion date for the outdoor portion of the expansion will ensure that concerts or other events can be held at the Palomar Starlight Theater during the outdoor facility’s normal period of operation.

“It will not be interrupted. The timing of this is specifically because of that,” Bembenek said.

Oktoberfest was held Oct. 14 as the final 2017 event held outdoors. The next Palomar Starlight Theater concert is planned for the third week in May, although no band has been selected.

The Pala events center is also used for concerts or comedy performances as well as for some boxing and mixed martial arts events. Concerts for which tickets are sold, free tribute band performances and private events have taken place at Infinity.

“Infinity will close after the first of the year,” Bembenek said. “Infinity is going to make way for more gaming.”

The signature bar will also occupy some of the former Infinity square footage.

Pala is the only casino in San Diego County which allows music fans to see tribute bands for free.

“It’s great to offer that,” Smith said.

Luis Rey’s is part of the restaurant promenade, and the renovations will double Luis Rey’s in size.

“That’s where I envision the tribute bands,” Bembenek said.

The tribute bands may also play outside at the Palomar Starlight Theater when weather and the absence of another event there permit.

Pala’s 60-Plus Club members can enjoy early afternoon concerts at Infinity every Tuesdays. The 60-Plus Club will use the Pala events center after Infinity closes.

The center bar stage will be retained; after the renovations, the bands will play there during weekdays and will use Luis Rey’s for weekends. Bands currently play at Luis Rey’s and also at the Cave wine cellar.

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