|By Ted Jackovics, Tampa Tribune,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Nov. 17, 2007 - TAMPA -- The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino celebrated the grand opening of its $120 million expansion Friday, including a new second floor for the casino, the Fresh Harvest restaurant and a VIP lounge.
While hundreds of visitors continued their afternoon of gambling, nearly 200 others gathered for a brief ceremony at a new, $2 million indoor video waterfall where Seminole leaders thanked the audience for its patronage first in Creek, the traditional tribal language, then in English.
"It is hard to believe this could become such a beautiful place," said Mitchell Cypress, chairman of the Tribal council.
The expansion project added about 55,000 square feet of gaming space and 1,099 gaming machines. Now, 150,000 square feet of casino and restaurant space and 3,208 gaming machines will be available.
"I think the casino will attract more people, which is good for business," said Laura Billie, a Seminole visiting from Hollywood, Fla., where the tribe also has a gaming operation.
The Hard Rock had a soft opening of the expanded gaming portion on Sept. 27. That turned the Tampa casino into the state's largest gaming area.
In late September, Hard Rock opened the upscale Council Oaks Steaks & Seafood Restaurant, with a public response that Tampa Hard Rock President John Fontana described as "amazing."
"The guests have really loved the new parts they had not seen before," he said.
Fontana said he could not provide specific figures on how much Hard Rock patronage has increased since the September soft opening of the expansion. But he said the complex was drawing more customers and more overnight guests at the hotel, who are booking longer stays.
The expansion is scheduled to be completed before Christmas, when a new parking garage for 1,250 cars is finished. That will raise total parking to 4,500 spaces.
Beyond that, the Hard Rock complex could enjoy even more patronage under a compact Gov. Charlie Crist signed Wednesday to allow card games such as blackjack and upgraded slot machines at Seminole facilities..
"I cannot even predict what the impact from that would be," Fontana said.
Friday's opening featured the 390-seat marketplace-style restaurant on the casino's new second level, which boasts seven kitchens cooking meals to order.
A guest "meet and greet" appearance by TLC's "Take Home Chef" Curtis Stone is from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. today outside the Fresh Harvest and is free and open to the public.
Stone will perform a cooking demonstration at 4 p.m., with $65 tickets available at the Hard Rock retail store and through Ticketmaster.com.
Reporter Ted Jackovics can be reached at (813) 259-7817 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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