From the Archives: Viejas reservation casino opened 30 years ago

Thirty years ago this week, the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians opened a $4.5 million casino on the reservation off Interstate 8 near Alpine.

From The San Diego Union-Tribune, Saturday, Sept. 14, 1991

Reservation casino opens to a full house

By Bob Rowland, Staff Writer

A thin layer of smoke hung low in the deep-crimson Dragon Room, where high rollers flashing Rolex watches and winning smiles tossed $100 bills across green felt tables with studied nonchalance.

Across the casino, at the “high-stakes” poker table, a half-dozen men sporting T-shirts and jogging pants sipped on soft drinks and ran their fingers over stacks of “nickels” ($5 chips), talking over the quiet clatter of fortunes won and lost.

Hundreds of high rollers and “hard rocks” — experienced gamblers — were on hand yesterday along with curious spectators eager for a taste of Las Vegas for the opening of the new $4.5 million Casino and Turf Club on the Viejas Indian Reservation.

Located amid brown, rolling hillsides dotted with century-old oak trees, the 24-hour gaming center offers a cool, gleaming haven for fans of Pai-Gow poker, seven-card stud and Texas Hold ‘em. In addition to Vegas-style card rooms, the complex features automatic “Joker Poker” machines and video slot machines and a 20,000-square-foot Turf Club for off-track betting.

Thoroughbred races will be beamed in by satellite from Del Mar, Hollywood Park, Los Alamitos and Bay Meadows throughout the year.

Major national races, including the Triple Crown and the Breeders Cup, also will be brought to the Viejas center via satellite.

Plans call for a 52,000-square-foot bingo hall — the largest in the county — to be completed next year.

At a ribbon-cutting ceremony yesterday, tribal members chanted traditional songs of good fortune before opening the doors of the casino and ushering in what many hope will be a new chapter in story of the Viejas band of Mission Indians.

“I have a great deal of confidence in this venture — so much so that I can stand here today and say that it will be profitable,” said tribal chairman Anthony R. Pico.

For the 240 residents of the Viejas reservation near Alpine, financial independence — the dream of the Indians’ Kumeyaay forebears — hinges on the success of the new casino complex.

The gaming center is viewed here as the linchpin in a tribal master plan that calls for spending about $1 million to upgrade the reservation’s underground water system and rebuild its sewage treatment facilities. Proceeds from the casino also will be earmarked for new housing and schools for Viejas residents.

Pico said yesterday that it is impossible now to estimate how much revenue the casino will generate. But his optimism appears unswayed by the specter of stiff competition from the Sycuan Indian Gaming Center about six miles east of El Cajon, which has grown steadily in popularity since it opened last fall.

“I think there’s ample opportunity for both operations,” Pico said. “And competition always brings better quality, so in the end the customer will be the winner.”

The Viejas casino may have one crucial advantage over its nearby competitor — location.

Just a few miles from Interstate 8 on Willows Road, the Viejas center can be seen by passing motorists on the freeway. To reach the Sycuan casino near Dehesa, out-of-town patrons need to drive along a winding, two-lane road that has been the scene of numerous accidents.