For two decades, Casino Rama has been referred to as the economic engine of the entire region.
At one point, the popular gaming facility was reportedly raking in $1 million a day, the parking lots were jam-packed and upwards of 2,000 people were working on the gaming floor, in the always at-capacity hotel, in the entertainment centre and fulfilling myriad roles behind the scenes.
But that economic engine has begun to sputter in recent years.
The proliferation of casinos - especially in the GTA where most of Rama’s gamblers originated - has dealt the casino a bad hand.
It’s in part why, after several failed attempts, the employees voted to become unionized three years ago.
Then, just over a year ago, Gateway Casinos and Entertainment won a bidding process to operate Rama and several other casinos in a ‘bundle’ created when the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation divided up the province’s gaming market.
The odds have not improved for Casino Rama employees.
In the year since Woodbine Casino opened and unveiled table games, the number of employees at Casino Rama has fallen from 1,700 to 1,200, according to union officials.
That trend hit a tipping point a few weeks ago when Gateway laid off 65 full-time union members and five part-time members. At the same time, an estimated 40-plus non-unionized managers and supervisors also lost their jobs.
Some fear a combination of reduced service levels, increased automation and the addition of new casinos could be the death knell for Rama.
It has sparked Unifor, the union representing the casino’s employees, to take action.
On Thursday, national Unifor President Jerry Dias will be in Orillia for a ‘Solidarity Rally” that is part of the union’s ‘No Jobs No Dice’ campaign “to preserve good casino jobs in Orillia.”
The union’s upper leadership is also meeting with senior executives at Gateway next week and have plans to meet with senior government officials to make their case.
While Casino Rama’s employees hope that campaign is successful - their livelihood depends on it - the stakes are high for many.
The casino has been a cash cow of sorts for Rama First Nation. Not only has the casino employed countless Rama citizens, the casino generates about $7 million annually for the small community.
Under their agreement with the OLG, which runs until 2031, Rama First Nation receives $5.5 million annually from Gateway in addition to 1.9% of gross revenues each year. Typically, that adds up to about $7 million.
OrilliaMatters first reached out to Rama First Nation almost two weeks ago to comment on the job losses and then tried again at the start of this week. However, the band’s spokesperson, citing holidays of some members of council, said she was unable to provide a statement.
Dean Beers, the president of the Orillia District Chamber of Commerce, said the loss of any job resonates in a small community.
“We want all local businesses to do well and prosper,” Beers said of the chamber. “For those people (who lost their jobs), you feel bad for the struggles and difficulties” they are facing.
However, he believes, overall, the forecast is relatively rosy in Orillia. He cited the dozens of new businesses opening in the downtown core in recent years and developments like Matchedash Lofts and the proposed redevelopment of the waterfront.
“Since taking on this role with the chamber in January, I’ve actually been quite surprised by how many jobs are out there,” said Beers.
However, he acknowledged losing “good, stable” jobs at the casino is tough.
“This will hurt and it’s a bit devastating in many respects,” said Beers. “We’re going to feel it.”
How we will feel it is what concerns Christine Hager.
“When I first came to Orillia in 2002, Casino Rama employed over 2,000 people,” said Hager, noting the casino offered competitive wages, health benefits and pension plans.
“The latest cuts have brought the number down to 1,200. The ripple effect will be pronounced in the usual places: food bank usage, incidents involving OPP call outs and emergency room visits.”
Hager, during her time in Orillia, has worked at The Sharing Place Food Bank, St. James’ Anglican Church and Information Orillia.
“My direct involvement in these three organizations gives me a unique perspective,” said Hager.
She said The Sharing Place relies on the generosity of Casino Rama for their annual marquee fundraiser, the Mac & Cheese Luncheon which packs the Nightingale Ballroom at the casino.
She noted Information Orillia has partnered with Casino Rama to host their annual Volunteer Recognition Dessert Gala, while St. James’ Anglican Church received turkeys from the casino’s wellness program for its annual Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.
“Should these generous supports no longer be available from the Community Wellness program, these three organizations would feel an immediate impact (of the) loss of funding in the thousands of dollars,” said Hager.
“Our local businesses and benefactors would struggle to make up this shortfall, so we might see the end of these meaningful events,” Hager noted.
The Canadian Index of Wellbeing survey, administered by Information Orillia last year, confirmed that 15.5% of Orillia residents have total household income under $30,000 per year, Hager explained.
“This suggests that many people are already living on the edge of poverty, literally paycheque to paycheque, in situations that may not be their fault,” said Hager.
“Expenses are high and it is hard to manage money that does not exist. Many come to Information Orillia because our network of connections may offer a glimmer of hope for food, housing, employment supports.”
She said such “mass layoffs negate any progress” being made by elected officials toiling to attract employment with living wages.
The Unifor rally “to preserve good casino jobs in Orillia” will be held at Tudhope Park on Thursday from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m.