TAMPA — It was the 1980s when the Seminole Tribe of Florida looked to its 30 acres on Orient Road as a potential tourist attraction and source of revenue.
"The first shovel in the ground" dug a pit for alligator wrestling, tribe president and vice chairman Mitchell Cypress recalled Thursday. One idea was that local schools would send classes there on field trips, and the kids would tell their parents. "That's where we started."
More than 30 years later, the Seminoles and executives Hard Rock International paused to mark how far they've come together. A $720 million expansion of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa is scheduled to be done Oct. 3, with a celebratory concert by country music superstar Keith Urban in the casino's new event center on Oct. 4. (Tickets went on sale at Ticketmaster on Thursday afternoon with prices starting at $196 a seat.)
The Tampa casino, said to be the nation's most successful individual casino for operating profits according to metrics reported to regulators and Wall Street, is not waiting for everything to be done. It's already booking guests into four floors of its new 14-story, 562-room hotel. Renovations to the 245,000-square-foot casino are complete, and the slots were busy at 10 a.m. on a weekday. Still, gamblers paused as casino executives unveiled a lofty, oval-shaped entrance hall built around a platform displaying a 24-karat gold leaf-covered piano once owned by Elvis Presley.
The atrium is all angles and curves, with two wrap-around escalators that rise along semi-circular paths instead of in straight lines. There's also beaded wall coverings meant to resemble piano keys and a huge multi-story chandelier, plus a song lyric on one wall from The King himself: "I just can't miss with a good luck charm like you."
With "this new atrium and the new finishes in the new casino, this product can now compete with anything in the United States," said Jim Allen, CEO of Seminole Gaming and chairman of Hard Rock International, which the Seminole Tribe of Florida has owned since 2006.
"They're getting there," said 52-year-old St. Petersburg resident Cleven Wyatt, who has played poker at the Tampa casino for years as well as in tournaments in Las Vegas and elsewhere around the country. "It's definitely changed" from "years ago when it was, like, a smoky bingo hall."
There's a lot of work left to be done in the next two months. Still unfinished are three new swimming pools, built on top of the casino itself, that will stretch the length of a football field, with a 60,000-square-foot pool deck, a restaurant, spa, 20 cabanas, and two DJ booths. The event center also is a work in progress. When complete, the 1,500-seat hall is expected to host concerts and other entertainment probably 80 to 100 nights a year, Allen said, as well as conventions, trade shows, poker tournaments and private events.
Meanwhile, the tribe is spending another $1.5 billion to expand its casino in Hollywood, Fla. and build a 450-foot-tall guitar-shaped hotel there.
The tribe does not disclose revenues for its operations, though an economist who tracks the industry said Indian gaming in Florida generated $2.56 billion in revenues in 2016.
2018 report: Florida Indian gaming revenues grow, but more slowly
Seminole Hard Rock executives do say the Tampa location averages more than 20,000 customers a day with more on weekends. They are looking for that number to grow as the expansion broadens the business' range of entertainment.
"Enjoy," Cypress told the crowd Thursday. He said the mission — generating revenue for the tribe — remains the same as it was when Seminoles dug that alligator pit, so he also told everyone not to forget their credit cards. "If you've got plastic with you, you're welcome."
Contact Richard Danielson at email@example.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times