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Hollywood Casino Jamul eyes summer ’16 opening

The Jamul Indian Village and its partner, Penn National Gaming, are betting on San Diegans’ continued appetite for casino-style gaming. Soon to join the ranks of nearly a dozen such destinations in the county is the $360 million Hollywood Casino Jamul, for which a June or July 2016 grand opening is foreseen.

The 200,000-square foot casino, construction of which began in early 2014, will be on six acres some 20 miles east of downtown. Its attractions will include 1,700 slot machines, 50 live table games, a steakhouse, an Asian restaurant, sports bar, indoor/outdoor beer garden and a food court.

If you’re wondering what “Hollywood” is doing in the name, it’s not just there for show. Penn National Gaming owns the Hollywood Casino brand and has 27 such themed facilities across the country.

Richard St. Jean, general manager of Hollywood Casino Jamul, said its décor will be “kind of the retro ‘30s,” but “a little more modern version of it.” Hollywood memorabilia will be on display throughout.

The Jamul casino odyssey dates back to 1999 when the JIV, a band of the Kumeyaay Nation of Southern California, signed a gaming compact with the state, at the time governed by Gray Davis. But to Erica Pinto, tribal chairwoman, “it’s been 20 years in the making, I thought it wouldn’t happen. And what were we going to do for our future?”

Pinto calls the prospect of finally opening the casino “exciting” and “emotional,” and believes that its business “will open the doors for better education for all of us, and housing and economic independence.”

St. John, who was previously general manager of Penn National Gaming’s Hollywood Casino Toledo, said the 52 members of the Jamul Indian Village “have earned it, and they deserve it.”

“I’ve been involved with [JIV] for six to eight months,” St. Jean said. “As you learn about your partners, you become emotionally attached. That emotion applies not only to me but to the thousand-plus people we will have working here.”

Some 1,500 are expected to have worked on the construction of the casino by the time it opens next summer, and St. Jean estimates by then 1,100 people will have permanent jobs there. “Our commitment,” he said, “is to hire locally, train locally and buy locally.”

Penn National Gaming’s optimism about the Hollywood Casino Jamul project begins with its setting. “When you build a casino, it’s about location location location,” St. Jean said. “The views are spectacular.”

St. Jean is also counting on business relationships to be successful. “Number one, we set out to be part of the entire community,” he said. “We’ve met very aggressively with local businesses. We want to create partnerships. At the very end of the day we want to be an employer of choice.”

With confidence, St. Jean observed: “Everywhere there’s been a new casino we’ve seen local businesses thrive. We want to be looked at as a stand-alone facility but also as another amenity for San Diego.”

Erica Pinto’s journey to this point has been a personal one.

“It’s all about the improvement of my people’s lives,” she said. “This has been a challenging period. Life wasn’t easy growing up here. My mom [who is also on the tribal council] had dirt floors and shacks. I didn’t have the things others had.”

For the present, construction on the site along state Route 94 continues. Part of that includes working in cooperation with Caltrans on traffic and safety improvements to the freeway. “We’re prepared to spend millions of dollars to create good traffic flow,” St. Jean said.

For Pinto, who said Monopoly has always been her favorite board game, the road to “bettering everyone’s life” stretches out before her, and it’s game on.

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