It’s 10:30 on a Monday morning and Gardens Casino is buzzing.

Its expansive new $90 million building, lined with honey-hued halls and dotted with dragons, Buddhas, and orchids, gives off a vibe akin to an opulent P.F. Chang’s, albeit one that’s wired with the energy of some 700 gamblers packed in at card tables.

The new card club is part of a local gambling economy that by some estimates is valued at as much as $450 million a year, fed by bustling crowds playing poker, pai gow, and baccarat. That much cash in the market is one reason the Hawaiian Gardens casino sunk so much money into the 200,000-square-foot space that opened earlier this month.

“This has been my dream,” said Ron Sarabi, Gardens’ longtime general manager, speaking from the massive building’s foyer, with its sweeping views of the tables, restaurant, and bar.

The Gardens isn’t the only L.A. card room sinking serious cash into its building. Bell Gardens’ Bicycle Casino spent $50 million to build a recently opened seven-story, 118,000-square-foot boutique hotel, and it’ll likely pay an additional $5 million for ongoing casino floor refurbishments.

“We felt like with the competition, if we didn’t expand, we were going to become irrelevant,” said Robert H. Carter, 70, president of Carter Management Group Inc., the general partner of the Bicycle Hotel & Casino. His casino was built in the 1980s, as were many of his competitors’.

Inglewood’s Hollywood Park Casino has said that it has committed “significant” funds to erecting a new building that will debut in the fall.

While some are expanding to relieve buildings bursting at the seams with gamblers, others are aiming to attract new clientele who might be younger or visit from farther away.

That could be expected to irk nearby Indian casinos, which could see the spruced-up card rooms as a competitive threat, but Steve Stallings, chairman of the Sacramento-based California Nations Indian Gaming Association, said the L.A. offerings don’t appear to be eating into the tribe’s gaming business.

In fact, he’s eager to see online poker legalized statewide, which could boost business for everyone.

“Hopefully legalization of internet poker in California would improve the number of people playing and excitement for the game,” Stalling said. “We’re anxious to see that happen; it would benefit the card rooms and tribal card rooms.”

Stallings only takes issue with operators who don’t follow state or local regulations when expanding or by offering games that are banked by the house.

“The state Gambling Control Commission should make sure all of us operate in conformance with the law,” he said.

The card rooms the Business Journal spoke with said they are following regulations.

Expanded presence

To put the capacity issue at the Gardens Casino into perspective, consider that even its old semipermanent tent next door that was roughly a quarter of the new building’s size, accommodated as many as 7,000 patrons each day. That was with card tables squeezed into the old bar – not exactly the picture of luxury.

Despite the crowds, it was clear that the tent needed to be replaced.

Downey-based casino consultant Robert Turner said recent card room upgrades have been driven by an improved local economy reclaiming momentum that the recession stole from a 2004 poker boom, the popularity of the card game baccarat with Asian customers, and the busing in of players from other cities in the region.

Turner estimated that combined revenue at the seven L.A. card rooms sunk as low as $800,000 a day during the economic downturn. It is now estimated to be up to $1.3 million a day across the properties.

Joe Patterson, executive director of the California Gaming Association in Sacramento, said he sees these investments in L.A. card rooms in the context of a nationwide trend to upgrade gaming facilities and improve offerings.

“The renovations include not only guest comfort and aesthetics, but also nongaming amenities like hotels and food and beverages,” he said. “It’s the card rooms realizing that there’s an opportunity to satisfy patrons right there at home.”

Trailer to tent

Card clubs were approved in Hawaiian Gardens in 1995, after which the casino’s co-owners, Irving Moskowitz and wife, Cherna, started working on designs for the club. After the state Gambling Control Act was passed two years later requiring sanctioned card rooms to be in place by the end of 1997, a trailer with five card tables and a snack bar was hastily erected said Sarabi, then a consultant for the casino.

Sarabi, 70, became general manager in 1998. The following year he replaced the trailer with a massive semipermanent tent – the same one that was in use until a few weeks ago – adding other sections as needed. The old tent will be torn down and replaced with extra parking over the next few months. Gardens paid for the new $90 million facility, which took two years to build, with its earnings rather than taking out a loan.

The casino’s customers come mostly from southern Los Angeles County and northern Orange County, a base that includes large numbers of Vietnamese and other Asian patrons. These gamblers play pai gow, baccarat, and some black jack at the casino, which operates 24-7. Buy-in for the games starts at $5 a hand and can go as high as $10,000 for some games in the VIP section.

And the reason it’s so busy on a Monday morning, Sarabi said, is because many patrons work swing shifts in restaurants or at other service jobs and fill the odd hours in between jobs by playing cards.

Casino Rolls Dice on Expansion Draw

While most L.A. card rooms undergoing renovations want to score more gamblers, Inglewood’s Hollywood Park Casino – a flashy, neon-decked facility that opened in 1994 – is hoping to attract customers who won’t do a lick of betting.

Its new modern-looking building, situated off Century Boulevard adjacent to the old casino, will feature a sports bar, restaurant, lounge, and an overall higher-class vibe, according to Deven Kumar, general manager of the Hollywood Park Casino Co. It will also add 35 more gaming tables, bringing its total to 125.

“They don’t have to gamble,” said Kumar, 45. “It’ll make it less intimidating and more of an offering for the casual customer to come in, check out the sports bar to watch a game or before an event at the Forum. We’re not looking to steal business from other casinos. We’re expanding the market to new customers.”

Many of those news customers will undoubtedly be drawn to the city by the presence of the new football stadium to be built next door for the Los Angeles Rams.

Hollywood Park is owned by San Francisco’s Stockbridge Capital Group, which bought the 240-acre site in 2005 and is partnering with Kroenke Group to develop the stadium, scheduled to open before the 2019 season. The casino site was carved out of the larger Hollywood Park property to create a demarcation between the gambling activities and the stadium, as the National Football League doesn’t want to be linked so closely to gaming.

The new 110,000-square-foot casino, set to open this fall, will be 35,000 square feet larger than the old venue.

Even before the new stadium entered the picture, Stockbridge planned to upgrade Hollywood Park in some fashion to keep pace with the firm’s adjacent master-planned development. When the new casino opens, the old site will make way for commercial or retail space.

Stockbridge won’t disclose how much it’s investing in the new casino, but Kumar said it’s significant. The new development will see its 800-person employee base expand by a quarter.

“I think all of this is great for our industry,” Kumar said of the upgrades to local card rooms. “We’re all doing stuff to take the properties to another level, and it makes the industry that much stronger.”

– Marni Usheroff

High rollers

The Gardens’ card table capacity jumped to 374 tables from 175, and hovering above them are 220 new flat-screen TVs that are often tuned to sports. The casino’s upsized kitchen, restaurant, and bar now serve 6,000 meals a day while touting new offerings such as craft cocktails and microbrews on draft.

The casino also built a second floor with a more than 12,000-square-foot event center for big tournaments and entertainment, including the June 11 West Coast bikini contest for Hooters, which Sarabi expects will draw more customers.

In addition to giving his longtime customers a better place to play in the midst of an L.A. casino construction boom, he’s trying to court younger players who’ve gotten sucked into poker by watching popular TV shows such as “The World Series of Poker.”

“That’s why I really built this place as you see it,” Sarabi explained. “It’s elegant, comfortable, and not intimidating. You can come in here and relax and play and don’t feel like you’re intimidated by anything or anybody.”

He expects foot traffic to increase by about 15 percent to 25 percent in the next couple of years.

Turner, the consultant, noted that all the card rooms’ upgrades will give L.A. casinos more of a Las Vegas ambiance, not to mention tons of tables.

“If you’re a card player in the Western part of the U.S., you would have to want to come to L.A. to play cards; we will have 1,000 gaming tables within 20 minutes of each other,” he said. “If you gathered up all the poker tables in Las Vegas, you could put them in (Gardens Casino).”

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