Revamped Caliente gets back in the game

Tijuana – Construction workers are still removing debris and gardeners are tending to recently planted lawns, but a new kind of betting has begun at the iconic Caliente casino.

The historic building has a new facade with a Las Vegas-style entryway. Within, there’s the greyhound track, remodeled halls for traditional bingo games, sports betting, an international-cuisine restaurant and a piano bar.

Also inside are 1,333 new electronic gambling machines, which turned Caliente into the largest casino in Mexico when it opened last month. The casino’s owner, former Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon, invested more than USD 25 million in the facility.

The renovation is so dramatic that it’s easy to lose sight of the new development around Caliente.

Next month, construction of a 33,000-seat soccer stadium is expected to be finished. The stadium will be capable of hosting a first division soccer team, which the Hank family has sought for years.

A private firm plans to open a 425,000-square-foot shopping center with a movie theater, high-end retailers, a Wal-Mart and a Starbucks by March.

“Before, the traditional part of Tijuana was Revolución Avenue, but with this we’re creating an attraction not just for local shoppers, but also foreign tourists,” said Francisco Ramírez, director of public relations for Grupo Caliente, the casino’s owner.

In Mexico, gambling is limited to sporting events, including horse racing, and number-based games of chance such as bingo. In 2004, however, the government approved legislation that opened the doors to bingo-based electronic games.

Since then, there has been a proliferation of mini-casinos with these machines, which to the untrained eye look like Las Vegas-style slots.

Grupo Caliente operates more than 130 gambling establishments in Mexico, and many have electronic bingo-based machines, including those at the Pueblo Amigo hotel and on Revolución Avenue.

To play, a customer needs a card and a code that must be entered into the machine. To cash out, the player takes the card to a cashier.

It’s unclear what effect the Caliente casino will have on attendance of San Diego County’s casinos, which offer myriad promotions to attract guests from Mexico, including free transportation.

Some casinos in the county have a large number of players from Mexico. For example, up to 40 percent of the clientele at the Golden Acorn in Pine Valley comes from Tijuana, Tecate and Mexicali.

The Caliente casino “hasn’t had an impact on our business,” Golden Acorn’s Audrey Marlow said. “We think the competition is good because it strengthens the industry.”

But there are signs that the new Caliente could affect U.S. casinos.

Patricia Méndez is among the hundreds of Tijuana residents who pack the buses that transport gamblers north of the border every day.

“The line to cross into San Diego is really hard and the truth is this casino is attractive and close to my home,” said Méndez, 47, a homemaker.

The casino belongs to the controversial ex-mayor, who returned to the private sector last year after losing the election for governor of Baja California.

Hank, 52, who is well-connected politically, has been dogged by allegations of money laundering, and his former bodyguard was convicted in the 1988 murder of a Tijuana journalist. Hank has never been charged with a major crime.

The original track opened in 1916, and its casino operated from 1928 until 1935, when gambling was banned in Mexico. Certain types of bets were allowed in 1947, including on horse racing, which continued at the track until the 1980s.

The new phase has surprised many customers who have patronized the place for years, including Fernando Parra, who has come to the dog races since 1971.

From his chair, he can see in the distance the unfinished soccer stadium, and workers with shovels and picks walk past the greyhounds as he enjoys the air conditioning in the new hall.

“It’s fabulous,” he said. “I remember when you had to cross to the other side just to eat a hamburger, and now we have everything here, even a casino. I think this is going to be very popular with people from the other side of the border, too.”