There have long been rumours and concerns about the fate of one of the region’s largest employers, but Casino Rama isn’t going anywhere, says Chippewas of Rama First Nation Chief Ted Williams.
“That’s not going to happen,” he said in response to concerns about the casino closing permanently.
The casino closed in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic and, despite the province giving casinos the go-ahead to reopen last month, Rama’s remains closed.
“The casino business kind of goes with the flow as far as the economics of the day,” Williams said, noting the pandemic has affected all businesses in some way.
Casino Rama generates $200 million to $300 million per year, and Williams said it would be “foolhardy for us to think that it wasn’t going to rebound and come back.” There might be some changes, he added, “but it’s still a viable business.”
Rama First Nation is not involved in the day-to-day operations of the casino, but band officials “are providing strong leadership to assist Gateway (the casino operator) to meet the demands of business” and ensure employment opportunities are available for residents of Rama and surrounding areas.
“The employment levels of First Nation individuals was and has been a concern for 24 years,” Williams acknowledged.
He estimated the casino employs 30 to 40 Rama band members. That number was about 140 when the casino opened in 1996, but Williams noted many have gained experience at the local facility before moving on to other career opportunities elsewhere. Some have even gravitated to the Rama band office.
That’s another reason Williams is confident a casino can continue to operate in Rama. The band has “casino experts” on staff, he said. It also has Rama Gaming House operations (smaller casinos) in Mississauga and Scarborough and used to be a partner in a casino in Cranbrook, B.C. Rama sold its portion of that casino a few years ago.
Rama has always wanted to gain ownership of Casino Rama at some point, and that’s still the goal.
“I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t. That remains the objective,” Williams said, noting the question is “how and when that will take place.”
For now, the focus is getting Casino Rama back up and running and ensuring it thrives. Williams — one of the key players in bringing the casino to the First Nation, and who served as a vice-president in its early days — is optimistic that will happen, despite changes that have been made since Gateway took over operations.
They include the closure of some restaurants, changes to the popular players card program, cancelling buses that brought visitors from local hotels and ceasing promotion of bus tours from the Greater Toronto Area.
Sometimes, major changes are necessary, Williams said.
“What Gateway has done is respond to the market and the competition. We have stiff competition to the south of us,” he said. “There is a need to respond accordingly to the business levels. I could second-guess Gateway until the cows come home, but we’re working with them … to ensure the longevity and our fair share of the market.”
Rama First Nation has continued to receive its share of revenues during the casino shutdown, he noted.
Rama is “always looking at diversification opportunities,” he said, but added that is not in response to fears about the casino’s future.
“We’re always open to ideas to assist and complement the casino or the community,” he said, noting a retail cannabis store slated to open in February is an example of that type of diversification.
Williams said he understands the importance of Casino Rama to not only the First Nation, but also surrounding communities.
“To the local community, the townships, the cities, the businesses: I know that they’re looking for strong leadership. You have strong leadership here,” he said. “We have a great team and we’re doing everything we can to make sure everyone’s safe and healthy.”