|By Steve Huettel, St. Petersburg Times,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jun. 15, 2007 - TAMPA -- Just three years after opening, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino is undergoing a $120-million expansion that will make it Florida's largest casino.
An addition expected to open in August will create a 3.2-acre gaming floor with 3,200 machines -- about 50 percent larger than the existing casino.
The project also includes a steak house, a VIP lounge and a 1,250-space garage with room to park nine buses at a time.
Owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the casino has been a huge success, drawing as many as 20,000 people a day during Florida's busy season from Christmas through Easter.
Once focused only on the Tampa Bay area, the casino now markets itself to gamblers as far away as Daytona Beach, Ocala and North Port in Sarasota County, says president John Fontana.
"We're doing a great business," he says. "And we want to increase from a local to a much more regional market."
But with double-digit percentage growth each year, the casino has been bursting at the seams during peak times. Drivers sit in long lines just to enter the parking garage. Customers stand around waiting for a favorite machine or two seats side-by-side, says Fontana.
"It's become the rule on weekend nights during the season," he says. "Come on a Saturday night in February, and it's crowded."
But the expansion isn't just about more space for cars, people and video bingo games. The casino needs new amenities to compete with high-end restaurants and other entertainment options, says Fontana.
Steak knives used by celebrity guests will hang on the walls of the Council Oak Steaks & Seafood Restaurant. Through windows, customers will view the butcher shop and chefs in the kitchen.
A new floor above the casino will include a VIP lounge, a living room setting for Hard Rock's biggest gamblers. The chef will prepare menu selections or take special requests.
A 390-seat buffet-style restaurant on the same level will feature cooks at free-standing stations preparing baked goods, sushi and Mongolian barbecue.
The casino's centerpiece will be a $2-million Plexiglas "WonderWall" illuminated with music videos and images from eight projectors.
The expansion doesn't include Hard Rock's 250-room hotel, which averages an astounding 96 percent occupancy rate and fetches nightly rates of $300 or more in high season.
Hard Rock will hire 300 employees in food service, accounting, security and other fields before the addition opens.
Managers will hold a job fair July 11-12 at the Florida State Fairgrounds across Interstate 4 from the casino.
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