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Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa debuts $700M expansion

TAMPA — It wasn’t just any grand opening; the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa went all out for the property’s Grand Celebration.

The $700 million expansion was celebrated Oct. 3 with a guitar smash, fireworks, celebrities and a thrilling high-wire act by Nik and Delilah Wallenda.

The grand celebration continued Oct. 4 with a sold-out concert by country superstar Keith Urban and a pool party Oct. 6 hosted by celebrity DJ Brody Jenner.

The hotel and casino is on the former Tampa reservation, a site which once held more modest structures.

“We started with a chickee and one alligator in a pen,” said President Mitchell Cypress.

Before the pyrotechnics and daredevil antics began, invited guests filled the Hard Rock Event Center for a performance by the hi-tech neon and LED dance group Light Balance. Tribal leaders and Hard Rock executives also lent their voices to the day.

Tampa residents moved from the Tampa reservation in the early 1980s to make room for what would become the most successful casino in North America.

Seminole medicine man Bobby Henry, left, retired Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa President John Fontana, center, and the property’s current president Steve Bonner watch the grand opening of the Tampa expansion. (Photo Beverley Bidney)

“We started this $700 million and two years ago,” said Chairman Marcellus W. Osceola Jr. “This used to be a village; what it has become is monumental.”

The Tampa casino is the leading earner of the Hard Rock brand with revenues of about $1 billion annually, according to Jim Allen, CEO of Seminole Gaming and Chairman of Hard Rock International.

The $31 billion generated this year in Native American casinos surpasses all commercial gaming in the U.S.

The Tribe bought Hard Rock International in 2006. It was the first Native American tribe to purchase a major international corporation.

“It’s important to see the legacy the Tribe created by purchasing Hard Rock International,” Allen said. “That success happens because of the support of the Tribe and Tribal members. In 2000, Hard Rock International was a challenged company. Without the Tribe, I’m not sure we would be here today.”

HRI is the highest rated casino company in the world and its debt is rated investment grade by the three leading credit rating agencies, Standard and Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch Group.

“Our ancestors couldn’t have imagined something like this,” said Chairman Osceola. “They just hoped for education and good health. We are very blessed to be able to provide for our people.”

Hollywood Councilman Chris Osceola chats with actress Nicole Kidman while Chairman Marcellus W. Osceola Jr. talks to supermodel Christie Brinkley during the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa grand opening Oct. 3. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

Expansion Details

The Tampa expansion includes a 562 room 14-story hotel bringing the total guestrooms and suites to about 800, the 30,000 square foot Hard Rock Event Center, three pools on a deck the size of a football field, the 26,000 square foot Rock Spa and Salon, and the 245,000 square foot casino with nearly 5,000 slot machines, 179 table games and a state of the art poker room with 46 poker tables.

“This is a big thing for the community,” said Tampa resident Bobby Henry. “It’s a good thing for everybody in the Seminole Tribe. People are happy about this; it makes us stronger and richer. I’m almost 84 years old and I’m still kicking.”

The success of the property allows the Tampa community to be better educated, have services such as Seminole Police Department, Fire Rescue and medical staff, for which Henry is grateful.

“We lived on the reservation and had to move,” said Henry’s daughter Joanie Henry. “We gave up a lot. With the Lakeland property we will be a community again, instead of being scattered. We’ve been waiting for a home for a long time.”

Tribal officials from every reservation attended the celebration.

“Thanks to Jim Allen and [general counsel] Jim Shore, the two Jims,” said Big Cypress Councilman David Cypress. “Without those guys I don’t think we’d be where we are now.”

Brighton Councilman Larry Howard thanked the creator and the construction workers who “spent countless hours to make this happen.”

The pool deck at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

“This means everything to the Tampa community,” Councilman Howard said. “They’ve been waiting for a long time. To have all the Tribal members here today and see all the smiles on their faces; there is nothing better than that.”

Hollywood Councilman Chris Osceola thanked Tribal members for giving Council the support to move forward with the project.

“Now let’s go smash some guitars,” Councilman Osceola said.

Once all the Tribal leaders, Hard Rock executives and super model Christie Brinkley were in place on the pool deck, guitars in hand, actress Nicole Kidman counted down the iconic guitar smash. With the smash came fireworks, smiles and applause.

A few minutes after the smash, high-wire artists Nik Wallenda, 40, and his mother Delilah Wallenda, 66, walked between the two hotel towers, 150 feet above the pool deck, as guests gaped upward at the feat.

It was said to be Delilah’s final performance and it went off without a hitch.

Corporate Leadership

John Fontana retired as president of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa in 2018 after 38 years of working with the Tribe.

He moved to Tampa in 1981 as an assistant to the managing partners. With his sharp business acumen, Fontana worked his way up over the years.

Delilah Wallenda, 67, watches her son Nik Wallenda, 40, from her perch on the half-inch diameter wire as they both walk from tower to tower at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa during the Grand Celebration Oct. 3. It was Delilah’s final performance after a decades-long career. (Photo Beverley Bidney)

“It looked a little different back then,” he said. “It was just a metal warehouse bingo building, a smoke shop and a culture center on eight acres, not 40. Now it’s one of the most beautiful casinos on the planet.”

Fontana and his team did a lot of work over the last four years preparing for opening day.

“To walk in and see it finished is more than I could have imagined,” Fontana said. “Jim Allen said to me in the early days that ‘Council supported us and built you a Ferrari. Don’t be afraid to step on the gas.’ Now it’s the busiest casino in the country.”

Steve Bonner replaced Fontana as president of Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa in Nov. 2018 after serving as president of Seminole Casino Coconut Creek.

“This is a fabulous day and it has been a whirlwind to get here,” Bonner said. “Hard Rock has been part of community for a long time and is a corporate partner with the city of Tampa. Now we will take it to a new level and reestablish this as an entertainment destination, not just a casino.”

Tampa Natives

The Tampa community was a large presence at the Grand Celebration.

“I feel my mom is still alive here,” said Nancy Frank. “People come from far away to play here. Sometimes I talk to them when I’m playing next to them. They enjoy it here.”

Frank has known Fontana since the beginning, appreciates everything he did and considers him part of the Tampa family.

Clarence Motlow was the first Seminole to live on the Tampa reservation. He moved from Immokalee in 1980 and helped build the smoke shop, museum and chickees.

“I never envisioned anything this big,” Motlow said. “For 20 years we looked for a place to live. Because of its success we were able to buy the $15 million property in Lakeland and are building a new reservation. It’s a stunning turn of fortune.”

Edward Aguilar, general manager at the Seminole Classic Casino Hollywood and a 2015 Tribal Career Development program graduate, joined a few Tampa TCD interns at the celebration.

“This will impact us in a positive way, there is more room to grow in the company” said Kristicia Tommie, who works in table games. “We are more than ittie-bittie Tampa; we’re everything.”

President Mitchell Cypress is interviewed by Bay News 9 Tampa at the grand opening of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa expansion. (Photo Beverley Bidney)

Ashley Santiago, a pit manager in table games, is glad to see the casino expanded.

“We are opening more tables, more dealers are coming on the floor,” Santiago said. “We are bringing in more people and giving them the opportunity to be part of the family.”

Tacey Tommie, who works in banquets, is excited about the new space including the Hard Rock Event Center, which can be used for banquets and other events.

“This is a long awaited exhale,” Tommie said. “I’ve seen it through the construction with ever-changing walls. This will enhance the banquet program; we have the new venue now.”

At the end of the first day of the Grand Celebration, folks relaxed over lunch and processed the morning’s activities and the new Tampa landscape.

“It’s impressive,” said Immokalee Board Liaison Ralph Sanchez. “It’s come a long way from what it was to what it is now. It’s unbelievable.”

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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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