Pala Casino breaks ground on $170M expansion, new hotel


Pala Casino Resort & Spa, which ushered in the era of luxury Las Vegas-style hotels in San Diego, broke ground Tuesday on a $170-million expansion and extensive remodel.

The ground breaking ceremony kicked off the demolition of the current swimming pool, signaling the start of a multi-year construction project that’s slated to be completed in May 2019. The expansion will add a new 349-room hotel tower, a splashy aquatic playground and an enlarged spa, casino floor and parking garage. The current hotel and casino interior will also undergo a significant update.

“Pala was really the first property in Southern California to offer a complete casino resort experience. All of our competitors have elevated their game and the challenge with this expansion is not meeting the existing expectations of our guests, it’s exceeding them,” CEO Bill Bembenek said in a recent interview.

“Our guests are very discerning. We’re adding new elements and there essentially isn’t going to be an inch of the existing property that will be untouched,” he said. “It’s been a high-volume property for 17 years that has served us well and it’s time.”

Bembenek will join with Pala Band of Mission Indians Chairman Robert Smith today to mark the launch of the expansion, the casino’s third since it opened in 2001.

Bembenek said the added hotel tower will give Pala a total of 854 rooms and suites, with several existing hotel rooms being converted into suites, including two 10th-floor presidential suites, with pool and mountain views.

“We think one of our greatest assets is our natural setting, and we’re really conscious about pulling the outside view inside wherever you are,” Bembenek said.

“You’ll feel like you’re not confined in a building but actually on a mini-vacation.”

Several of the renovated hotel suites will have balconies overlooking the pool and entertainment complex.

Bembenek said Pala officials are working with the architectural and design team to select the “elevated finishes” and next-gen electronics that will distinguish the resort from its competitors.

“We’re still, especially in the hotel, in the early stages of design, and we’re still determining what we’ll provide. We’re exploring all the technology we can,” Bembenek said.

“When you do an expansion like this, obviously you want it to stand the test of time well into the future.”

When completed, Pala will be the third-largest casino hotel in the region, after Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula and Harrah’s Resort Southern California in Valley Center.

Having raised the bar by introducing an Indian casino hotel to an area more accustomed to bingo tents and modest, single-story facilities, Pala now finds itself in the midst of a casino expansion arms race of sorts. An estimated $1 billion is currently being spent to enlarge and upgrade five of the area’s 10 casinos. In addition to Pala, Pechanga, Viejas Casino & Resort, Sycuan Casino and Barona Resort & Casino are under construction to varying degrees. Additionally, Harrah’s Resort SoCal recently finished the final phase of a $160-million overhaul, which added a craft brewery and a larger, modernized spa, salon and barber shop.

The region’s newest casino, Hollywood Casino Jamul-San Diego, last week celebrated its first anniversary.

Intense competition for gamblers and resort guests extends beyond San Diego into L.A., Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, Northern Baja California and out to Arizona. By upping the luxury amenity experience - with opulent hotel suites, gourmet dining options, tricked-out pool complexes and swanky spas - local casinos have also captured a slice of the market that once would have only looked for such extravagances in Las Vegas.

Pechanga’s current $285-million expansion will more than double the resort’s accommodations to 1,090; the hotel is scheduled to open to the public in December. Also coming online in early 2018 is Viejas’ new 158 all-suites hotel tower. Both projects include added luxury enhancements, such as oversized pool complexes, new restaurants and spas. Sycuan is building its first hotel, with 250 rooms, as part of a $226-million expansion scheduled to be completed in 2019.

Pala’s enhancement of its existing facilities include increasing the size of the casino floor, added gaming and a floor-to-ceiling overhaul, with all new furniture, seating, walls, columns and carpeting. Three new levels of parking will add 400 spaces to the garage. And the current hotel will undergo a top-to-bottom renovation, from the room interiors to the corridors.

Many of the resort’s 11 restaurants will be expanded and upgraded, including Noodles, Luis Rey’s and Sushi Sake. Luis Rey’s, for example, will be doubled in size, made into an indoor/outdoor bar and grill and will have regular live entertainment.

The food court-like central dining plaza will be eliminated and the surrounding eateries will be have their own defined seating.

“These restaurants have proven themselves to be popular and can stand on their own,” Bembenek said. “We’re going to play to their strengths.”

The project is expected to generate 400 construction jobs and 200 full-time positions. Pala currently has about 2,000 employees.

The highlights of Pala’s expansion include:

  • A significantly enlarged 21-and-over pool complex with three main pools, two Jacuzzi-style pools, an outdoor bar and 14 luxury cabanas;
  • Private, VIP cabanas positioned close to the adjacent Starlight Theater. They can be rented for concerts and will accommodate up to 20 guests and be equipped with high-end outdoor furniture, multiple TVs and an exclusive bar;
  • An outdoor seating area with multiple fireplaces built off the Cave underground wine cellar;
  • Luxury finishes, furniture and decor in the new hotel rooms;
  • Keyless room entry;
  • Cutting-edge in-room technology that may include clocks, TVs and stereos embedded in the wall mirrors.