INGLEWOOD, California ♦ The smell is that of new construction, sawdust mingling with pink insulation high above bare concrete in a massive room. A fresh roll of carpet covers the main casino floor. No alcohol has touched its fibers. No cigarettes have been lit, or smoked, or rubbed out here. There’s no buzz — no flashing lights, no levers pulling or cards shuffling — and most of the television screens are either missing or turned off.
Otherwise, the new Hollywood Park Casino is ready to channel the spirit of the Las Vegas Strip. Just add people.
HPC, California’s newest gambling hub, is scheduled to open sometime this fall. It’s part of a larger concept for a small slice of urban sprawl just south of Los Angeles, along with a football stadium (home to the NFL’s Rams as of 2019) and other commercial projects on 300 acres of land waiting to be “revitalized” by big-money business. The new casino will replace the old casino of the same name, and become the first of the new businesses to open its doors. That makes HPC something of a guinea pig for the idea of Inglewood as a destination for the wealthy and the morally upright.
To that end, the Vegas reference is literally by design.
HPC’s general manager, Deven Kumar, opened the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino years ago. He’s aware of the key difference between casino-goers in Las Vegas and those in Southern California: Las Vegas appeals to more than just gamblers. It is also a destination for those interested in eating, clubbing, sunbathing, magic shows, boxing, people-watching, convention-going, comedy, concert-going, getting married, and various shades of adult debauchery in between. You don’t need to know the rules of poker to enjoy a weekend in Vegas.
The old HPC patron knew the rules of poker. He might be in Inglewood one day, Commerce Casino the next, San Manuel the next, and so on. There are good reasons for this. Slot games are not permitted in California outside Native American land. Sports betting is usually verboten too, but because the new Hollywood Park sits on the site of a former racetrack, you will be able to bet on horse racing here.
Kumar doesn’t seem primarily interested in attracting the sports bettor. “It’s a social environment,” he said, “as opposed to the hardcore gamer who just wants to play.” That’s why the first thing you see after walking through HPC’s doors is an opulent lobby with an impossibly high ceiling — a gathering space, not a gaming space. There’s an American restaurant and a full-service bar straight ahead. The sports book is to the right, the casino floor to the left. Beyond that is a thinly veiled, semiprivate room for high rollers; Kumar envisions a celebrity tournament here for the grand opening in October. Out of plain view, a private room for the ultra-high rollers sits off to the side.
See for yourself:
In style, this is a departure from the old Art Deco casino that fought a losing battle with its reputation and, ultimately, its age. The new casino is a direct line to the 702 area code, minus the slots, sports books and reasonably priced suites looming overhead.
Las Vegas sells itself on being new. It’s a place where old is bad and young is good. To mimic this ethos is to invite a predictable problem. The moment Hollywood Park Casino begins to feel old again, it will be in trouble.
That said, the casino’s biggest challenge is not to maintain its youthful figure, but rather to separate itself from its surroundings. While the Vegas strip sits on unincorporated land, away from anything resembling Section 8 housing, Hollywood Park Casino does not. For now, low-income apartments are the first thing you see when you drive out of the parking lot. (Driving is the only choice, really. There are no rail lines within walking distance and there won’t be for a while, if ever. Unless you plan to hail an Uber at LAX, which is actually quite close, count on parking your vehicle in one of approximately 1,700 parking spaces on site.) It’s not a neighborhood you really want to drive through. This was the biggest challenge for the old casino, too.
So maybe the early years of the new casino’s existence aren’t as critical as one might think. If you build it, they will come, but as long as the acres surrounding Hollywood Park remain under construction, card games will be the main attraction here. History shows that can be a tough sell. Once the Rams, the restaurants, the shops, and maybe some residences fill in the space between the new casino and the Fabulous Forum, the grand experiment will be set in motion.
Being the guinea pig is rarely sexy. Hollywood Park will try to change that.
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