Anna G. Larson — NOVEMBER, 2011 — Sycuan Casino’s renovation can be summed up in two words — exposed and holistic. The $27 million, 245,000 square-foot revamp designed by Hnedak Bobo Group (HBG) and Cleo Design focused on improving the flow of the space.

“Our casino has historically suffered from the ‘repetitive addition syndrome’ that has ultimately resulted in the casino feeling very piecemeal and closed off from one area to the next,” said Sheila Howe, general manager of Sycuan Casino. “In response, the renovation is being reconfigured to open lines of sight to create better wayfinding, provide greater visibility, improve security and encourage customers into other revenue-generating areas of the two-story casino.”

The goal of the renovation was to transform the competitive property into an even more enticing locale. The casino’s makeover includes a new grand staircase, a new sports bar and grill restaurant, a non-smoking buffet and a spectacular one-of-a-kind sound and light feature in the lobby.

The custom-created multidimensional feature uses sound, light and movement to emulate the four seasons of year and flowing water—all important cultural elements to the Sycuan Tribe.

Pendant lamps and LED light strands hang from below a dynamic 15-foot diameter light sphere chandelier. The light feature is synchronized with video panel flooring for a full floor-to-ceiling light show.

“There is nothing like it in the world,” said David Pallinger, senior associate at KCM Group Inc., project manager for the renovation.

The natural, bringing-the-outside-in design theme and cultural references continue throughout the casino with a neutral color palette. Materials for finishes, fabric and furniture harmonize with the natural stones, woods and terrain of the Dehesa Valley landscape.

“Our team’s interior design aesthetic for Sycuan Casino has been influenced by patterns, colors and shapes found in historic cultural references of the Sycuan Tribe, as well as abstracted elements of the desert landscape surrounding San Diego,” said HBG designer Shawn Hobbs, AIA.

A new, open floor plan transformed the gaming area into an inviting gaming floor. Simple soft ceiling and walls are accented with what appears to be suspended wood beams. A spherical iron cage chandelier is the main attraction, complemented by the mellow cove lighting.


A spray of red and yellow in the gaming area carpet pattern suggests nature and movement as interpreted from cultural elements important to the Sycuan Tribe.

“The design team has interpreted these [cultural] elements into a more subtle and contemporary design motif that will contribute to an upscale, yet comfortable environment for Sycuan Casino visitors,” said Cleo Design principal Ken Kulas, IIDA.

The new non-smoking buffet features stone counters, a wood-clad ceiling, glass tile and visible stainless kitchen equipment. Gigantic light-colored wood beams arranged in an abstract starburst pattern unite over the dining area. Upholstery and carpet in light shades of yellow, aqua green, pale orange and lime suggest a playful feeling. Aqua green mosaic tiles are positioned around the dessert station. A light-enhancing decorative glass and iron mobile hangs above the station.

“The goal of the project was to change the entire interior design of the casino from an existing Moroccan theme to a sophisticated, contemporary urban design,” Pallinger said.

The new sports bar and grill was designed specifically for sports fans, as the Sycuan Tribe sponsors the Padres and Chargers. The 6,500 square-foot space is intended to be the premier sports bar and grill in East San Diego County.

A custom baseball bat sculpture hangs in the entry, flanked by display box-lined walls housing vintage sporting balls. With a theme of grit and grace, dark paint colors mix with coarse staggered porcelain tile on the walls. Many different upholsteries suggest patterns and textures found in sporting textiles, such as mesh and netting. Sports memorabilia is displayed in polished and matte metal laminate display cases. Large format monitors provide optimal sports viewing. Focal wood tables with sleek metal inlays rest atop the wood flooring that emulates a basketball court. Salvaged wood was used to create an old-fashioned “dugout” dining area. Black granite bar tops gleam on the wood-veneered bar front.

Not only is the renovation significant for its scope, but also its ambitious timeline. The entire renovation was completed in 15 months and the casino maintained full operations during the project.

“Due to careful planning and intense day-to-day management of the project, there were no major problems or setbacks. The project was delivered on time and under budget,” Pallinger said. “The Sycuan Casino management team and the tribal leadership provided visionary direction and great support through the course of the project.”

The project team used current technology, their experience and communication to maintain the project design on schedule and on budget.

“HBG worked with Sycuan Casino’s operations team to develop several strategic planning and design initiatives that informed the renovation budget and schedule,” said Danny Valle, project manager and principal at HBG. “Construction phasing helped ensure continuing gaming operations with minimal impact to guest activities during the renovation.”

The smaller budget of the project allowed Sycuan’s operations team to be much more involved throughout the design and construction project, right down to the small details.

“Quality can be enhanced on a limited budget by selecting finishes and materials that provide a higher-end feel at a moderate cost,” Valle said. “For the highest impact, we strategically used specialty materials where guests could directly see, feel and touch them. These touch points were placed at eye level and in places of maximum visibility, such as fabric and furniture.”

The minute patrons—and casino staff—enter the newly renovated Sycuan Casino, they will be pleased with what they see, and more importantly, they will experience a top-notch environment. A fresh clean space with quality HVAC and air ventilation systems, pleasant sounds, reliable security and current gaming technology add to the design enhancements of the property.

“The biggest impact a casino can make from an operations standpoint is to enhance the overall quality of the gaming experience itself,” Howe said.

The casino is a major economic engine for the Sycuan Tribe, and its success is vital to community growth.

“The Sycuan Tribe is excited with the design concepts developed by Hnedak Bobo Group and Cleo Design,” said Sycuan Tribal Chairman Daniel J. Tucker. “We strive to provide our customers the best in amenities and services at our casino, and are confident our loyal customers will share that excitement when they see the results.”

The more open atmosphere combined with upgrades and the superb service Sycuan guests expect is an invitation to stop by the Sycuan Casino and stay awhile—you won’t be disappointed!


  • Owner: Sycuan Casino – Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation
  • Operator: Sycuan Casino
  • Architect: Hnedak Bobo Group
  • Interior Designer: Casino: Cleo Design; Sports Bar: Hnedak Bobo Group
  • Contractor: Swinerton Builders Program
  • Manager: KCM Group
  • Structural Engineer: Desimone Consulting Engineers
  • MEP: FEA
  • Lighting: Ken Reynar
  • Kitchen: Fred Schmid & Associates
  • Signage: Lorenc Yoo Design

Anna G. Larson is an Associate Editor for Casino Enterprise Management. She can be reached at (701) 293-7775 or editor6[at]