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Howard Stutz

Tribal Gambling: Leaving Las Vegas

24 April 2006

SAN DIEGO, California -- After nearly five years working the slot floors at some of Las Vegas' most-recognized casinos, Mike Montenez took what he learned to Southern California. A slot host position at the 59,000-square-foot casino that Harrah's Entertainment manages for the Rincon San Luiseño Band of Mission Indians allowed Montenez, 35, to be closer to his family, especially his 11-year-old son, and still work in a career he enjoyed.

But his new job in northern-most San Diego County allowed Montenez a benefit the majority of Las Vegas casino workers don't have. This fall, he'll own a pair of newly purchased season tickets to see his beloved San Diego Chargers.

Montenez's home in the Riverside County community of Temecula, about a 45-minute drive to Harrah's Rincon, is about a 90-minute drive to Qualcomm Stadium, home of the National Football League team.

"There are a lot of trade-offs (working in San Diego), but I also got tired of making the drive out here all the time to see my son," said Montenez, who has been with Harrah's Rincon for two years. "When I went to work at the Rio (also operated by Harrah's), my wife and I saw the opportunities to come out here and be closer to our families. So she got a job at Pechanga (an Indian casino in Temecula) and I transferred here. It's been a great move."

San Diego's nine casinos, which supply jobs to more than 13,000 workers, are dotted with transplanted Las Vegas casino workers.

Former Las Vegas casino owner Jerry Turk, whose management company has been operating Pala Casino for the Pala Band of Mission Indians since its opening almost five years ago, said most of the casino's senior managers have Las Vegas gaming experience.

The onset of casino gaming in Southern California forced Indian casinos to look to Las Vegas for experienced casino employees.

"Initially, when they opened table games, no one had ever dealt cards," Turk said. "We advertised in the Las Vegas papers and it built upon itself. Every dealer in Las Vegas knows what's going on in Southern California. If they want to get a pretty good job and change their lifestyle, they come here. Our dealers make an awful lot of money."

Rick Messura, assistant general manager for hospitality operations at the Barona Valley Ranch, spent 11 years in hotel management at Caesars Palace. American Indian casinos, he said, benefit from tapping into a pool of experienced casino workers from the Strip.

"We've surrounded ourselves with a lot of talent that came from gaming's biggest resorts," Messura said.

"I live in a city that's not all about gaming. There are so many other things to do (in San Diego) plus it's nice to live in a city where you're not reading about gaming all the time."

Many of the relocated Southern Nevadans wanted a climate change; they traded scorching summers in the desert for more temperate summers in beach communities.

Others wanted better jobs; they took their Strip employment experience and used their skills to advance their careers.

Joe Gonzales, a Harrah's Rincon table games manager, for example, came to San Diego to gain experience. He was working at Harrah's Las Vegas as a dealer and saw Rincon as a way to enter management.

"I'll probably move to another Harrah's at some point and that's what makes this a great opportunity," said Gonzales, 28. "When I first came here, I used my experience and helped other dealers. A lot would come up to me with questions."

Some transplanted workers wanted a lifestyle change.

Most of the transplanted Southern Nevadans don't see much difference in their day-to-day jobs.

"When it comes right down to it, this is absolutely like working in a casino in Las Vegas," Montenez said. "You don't really recognize too many differences right away. For the most part, it's just like the jobs I had in Las Vegas."

Said Messura, "You're working in a casino environment, but it's a different type of casino environment. (Barona) is in a beautiful valley and our property has beautiful grounds."

Mary Crane spent 23 years in hotel services at Fitzgeralds, dating back to when the downtown casino was known as the Sundance. She said San Diego gaming workers make trade-offs.

They may not have the short commutes Las Vegas casino workers take for granted. Crane, the assistant general manager for hotel operations at Pala Casino, said some of her staff spends between an hour-and-a-half to two hours getting to the casino, located off Highway 76 at the far northern end of San Diego County.

Also, she said, San Diego gaming workers must pay state income tax as California residents.

"If you enjoy working in the casino environment and you want the Southern California lifestyle, then this is the place to be," Crane said. "It's a little more expensive to live here and the biggest change is in housing. It's much more expensive."

With the casinos in somewhat rural communities in the county's northern and eastern edges, most of the San Diego gaming workers are spread between highly populated northern county cities such as Escondido, Oceanside and Vista, and cities in southern Riverside County, such as Temecula, Murietta and Lake Elsinore.

According to the Web site, which compares cost-of-living categories for different cities, both San Diego and Riverside County are far more expensive places to live than Las Vegas. Based on an annual salary of $60,000, Riverside County is 13.6 percent more expensive to live than Las Vegas; San Diego has a 50 percent higher cost of living index than Las Vegas.

"Certainly, the cost of living here is higher than anywhere in Nevada, but it's trade-off," Messura said.

Gonzales, who lives in San Diego's Mission Valley, a short drive from the beaches, said he doesn't mind the added expense and longer commute to Harrah's Rincon. Gonzales used to live in the Green Valley section of Henderson and broke in as a dealer at Railroad Pass. He built his résumé by moving to different Station Casinos' properties.

"The clientele here are very much like we had at Station Casinos, primarily local," he said. "But we're very customer-service-oriented."

He said some dealers average about $22.50 an hour during a 14-day pay period, which includes hourly wages plus tokes.

"I've even seen it average as high as $30 an hour," Gonzales said.

The casinos have also provided employment for nongaming casino workers.

Singers Llynda More and Mark Gendel perform one week out of the month in Pala's Promenade Lounge. The pair had performed for two years in the Orchid Lounge at Mandalay Bay, losing the gig when MGM Mirage bought the Mandalay Resort Group.

Crowds at Pala are local, smaller and more subdued than audiences in Las Vegas, they said.

"One thing we found here is that they want live music in San Diego," Gendel said. "They embrace live music here and that seems to be going away in Las Vegas."

Added More, "The crowds are nice and because it's a lot of local people, you get to know them. Thank God these casinos are here to provide work."