Sometimes developing a casino can be an arduous and seemingly endless task. Jamul Indian Village can attest to this fact…they had been trying to get a casino built on reservation land in California since they entered into a tribal-state compact with the Gov. Grey Davis in 1999.

This dream was finally realized this past October when Hollywood Casino Jamul officially opened its doors to the public. The $390 million three-story, 200,000-square-foot facility, developed and operated by Penn National Gaming, is the closest casino to San Diego and a casino with 1,730 slot machines, 40 table games, an entertainment lounge and retail shop. Property amenities include dining options such as Tony Gwynn’s Sports Pub, Final Cut Steak & Seafood, Pizza Port, Tres Taqueria, Emerald Chinese and Ruby’s Diner; a rooftop beer garden featuring 100 taps dedicated to local brews; a Starbucks coffee bar; and a 1,800 space enclosed below grade parking structure.

To get this project developed, Jamul Indian Village (JIV) had to pass through numerous state and local hurdles, leading eventually to a signed Memorandum of Understanding with San Diego County that outlined substantial changes to the original design of Hollywood Casino Jamul that included: a 58 percent lower structure; 76 percent lower apparent height from SR-94; 61 percent smaller gaming floor area; 20 percent fewer parking spaces; 58 percent less potable water; 49 percent less wastewater generated; no wastewater removal trucks required and no untreated storm water leaving site; dark sky ordinance-compliant project lighting and signage; and no significant impact of light spillage, view shed, or riparian oak/willow stream.

Despite these limitations, Hollywood Casino Jamul has created quite a buzz within the San Diego community, and visitation to the property has been strong thanks in large part to its lineup of amenities. In a note to investors, Union Gaming Research wrote, “Penn National and the Jamul Indian Village nailed the F&B offerings, debuting a food court filled with local San Diego favorites including Tres Taqueria and Pizza Port. In addition, the Tony Gwynn’s Sports Pub is evidently a local hit and appears to be the choice food and beverage outlet for patrons at the casino. The property also features PENN’s signature Final Cut Steakhouse, offering a higher end option for customers. Management confirmed that F&B trends have so far exceeded their expectations.”

Indeed, management has been very pleased with how Hollywood Casino Jamul has performed thus far and its prospects to the future. Richard St. Jean, general manager for Hollywood Casino Jamul, recently took some time to speak with Casino Journal Editor Paul Doocey about the property, its design, working with the Jamul Indian Village tribe and how the facility is differentiating itself in a very competitive marketplace. Below are some excerpts from this conversation:

How would you describe the property from a design standpoint? Where cultural designs and imagery from the Jamul Indian Village tribe integrated into the overall design of Hollywood Casino Jamul?

St. Jean:  Years ago, the plan before Penn National got involved was for a Las Vegas-style casino with a 14-story hotel tower. But the Jamul Indian Village (JIV) were very responsive to public comment, and instead designed a building that is only 68 feet above grade, with muted earth tones that blend well into the local environment along with downcast lighting. So it has become a very subtle design/build relative to the local typography.

Once you come inside, it has the design elements of a typical Hollywood Casino-themed property with finishes, fixtures and memorabilia; such as dresses worn by Marilynn Monroe, Christopher Reeve’s Superman suit, the suit worn by Daniel Craig in the 007 Spectre movie, Will Smith’s Independence Day outfit and Toby Maguire’s Seabiscuit outfit, just to name a few, all really reminiscent of the Golden Age of Hollywood. We also tried to balance the design with multiple images that reflect San Diego. It is kind of an oxymoron that you have Hollywood Casino San Diego, so we really made a conscious effort to include imagery of San Diego—the downtown skyline, Petco Park, the Coronado Bridge, Point Loma Lighthouse. We also have images of the Jamul Mountains…these images were actually taken by JIV Chairwoman Erica Pinto during the February 2014 dawn groundbreaking for the project, and have a really impactful significance. We also have a large picture of the Midway Museum, and this is significant because our Vice Chairman, Kenny Mesa, served on the ship during the Vietnam War. The Jamul Indian Village represents the highest military service per capita of any tribe in California.

So you have integrated some tribal elements into the property to a certain degree…

St. Jean:  The tribal elements specifically start with the JIVe Lounge, which has some of Chairwoman Pinto’s groundbreaking images. There is also a large Jamul Indian Village logo over the exterior of the property. In the lobby, we also have two display cases that contain dozens of artifacts dating back over thousands of years.   

Please provide some background on the Jamul Indian Village of California and the process it went through to develop this casino. The tribe entered into a gaming compact with the state in 1999… why did it wait until now to develop a casino?

St. Jean: JIV has been working diligently for over 25 years to navigate an extremely complex process to ultimately host a gaming facility on their sovereign land. Penn National is very proud to be their developer and operator and help them realize their dreams. The project really gained transaction and shovels got put in the ground when Penn got involved with the project back in 2014.

How did Penn National gaming (PNG) get involved with the tribe and this project? What does PNG bring to this project?

St. Jean:  There was an introduction made back in 2012. Penn is always looking for new ways to grow our business, and we welcomed the opportunity to work with JIV. Penn National brought an unmatched track record of developing and opening casinos in new jurisdictions; with Hollywood Casino Jamul being our seventh new facility in the past five years. We are also confident now that we are open our experienced and talented management team will provide a competitive advantage in Southern California. 

It is just such a great opportunity for JIV and Penn collectively.

How has it been working with Jamul Indian Village?

St. Jean:  It has really been terrific. This project has been complicated on every front—developmental, political, legal—and the JIV tribal council has been very patient, taking time to learn from their Penn partners, consultants, legal and PR resources.

On more of a local level, JIV is very interested in being a solid business partner. They have been very focused on hiring locally, buying locally and partnering with local businesses as the need arises. They have also identified some really local philanthropic opportunities, since they themselves have been impacted by poverty, substance abuse and homelessness, and have identified these as their philanthropic pillars as they build local partnerships, which began over two years ago.  

What were some of the hurdles that PNG and Jamul Indian Village needed to navigate in order to get this property open and operating? What was done to solve these issues?

St. Jean:  As with any new tribal gaming development, there were a myriad of issues that needed to be resolved with federal and state agencies, including providing over $20 million in transportation infrastructure near the casino. JIV has also addressed area resident concerns related to the size and scope of the facility, and provided additional funds for roadway improvements as requested by the county of San Diego.  

How has the opening gone thus far for Jamul Casino? Do you have any stats involving attendance and revenues you care to share?

St. Jean:  We have had a nice, steady flow of customers. We are averaging about 7,400 patrons per day, which we think is a solid number. We will be re-launching some of our initiatives as we gain database.

Hollywood Casino Jamul is opening in a pretty competitive casino marketplace. How will this project set itself apart and capture market share?

St. Jean:  I think we have done a good job differentiating Hollywood Casino Jamul from its three most direct competitors. To start, we are the first new casino to open in 14 years, so we are definitely fresh and new to the market. We are literally 20 minutes from downtown as you head out on Highway 94, so we have the closest proximity to San Diego. We are also the closest in proximity to South Bay and Mexico, which I think is going to be beneficial. I’d say 100 percent of our parking is very convenient, which is always important to casino patrons. Also, with everything being very new, we have the latest and greatest slot and table game offerings. We have the best restaurant lineup… we are very excited about our food program. We have friendly team members, which I think is the norm in California and San Diego County. Lastly, we have the Marquee Rewards program that is tied to 26 other properties, from San Diego all the way to Bangor, Maine, and includes the M Resort and Tropicana in Las Vegas, where our card program is also reciprocal. 

I think there will be some economic impacts on the other properties, no question. But I also think there will be some accretive growth as we tap into these markets south of us.

So you see your property as adding to the gaming market instead of just stealing a slice from it…

St. Jean: I think that is right. Some of the other properties have amenities we just don’t have like hotels, golf courses and bingo rooms. So we have to set ourselves apart with the square footage we had to work with and that was why, in addition to gaming, the food program became so important. 

How is the property being marketed, both short-term for the opening and longer-term?

St. Jean: We are deploying on all fronts relative to database, PR and advertising, promotions and player development. We have dozens of initiatives in the works, as we do with all our other property launches.  

Is Hollywood Casino Jamul a phased development? If so, what will the first round of expansion include for the property?

St. Jean: The casino reservation is 100 percent built out. However, the tribe does have visions of tribal housing, health care and other support services in the future in addition to other business diversification plans. So they could acquire land and do things adjacent to the facility. But as far as the reservation itself is concerned, it is literally built out.