Ramah bets that big gamble will pay off handsomely for its future.

By ROBERT SARNER, Kol Ramah, August 2000

Drastic situations call for drastic actions. In recent months, faced with a worsening financial state, Ramah’s Board of Directors has sought ways to put the camp on sound economic footing. Over the past five years, soaring maintenance costs have far outpaced the increased revenue from growing enrollment.

At the Board’s annual meeting in July, members dusted off and approved a radical proposal first put forward in the early 1980s to turn Ramah into a casino nine months of the year. The plan calls for leasing out the camp’s facilities in the off-season to generate much-needed revenue and help improve Ramah’s infrastructure.

The venture is based on a remarkably simple idea, predicated on two surefire attractions – the year-round beauty and constant lure of Muskoka and the near-insatiable appetite many people have for gambling.

In early August, the project’s main investors hired three high-powered Toronto-based lawyers and lobbyists to procure the necessary licenses from the Ontario government to put everything in motion. Building work is expected to begin in the spring with the aim of minimizing disruptions to camp operations next summer.

The conversion of Ramah into a world-class casino and recreational complex will require more than 21 million dollars in construction costs and take 18 months to complete. But once open, it’s expected to prove a veritable cash cow for Ramah.

During the recent Board meeting, advocates of the plan cited the success of Ontario’s three existing commercial casinos. Last year, one of them, aptly named Casino Rama and situated in Orillia, attracted 4,000,000 visitors and raked in close to 500 million dollars. Camp Director Rabbi Mitch Cohen has lent cautious support to the project.

“I voiced certain reservations to the Board about some Halachic aspects of the plan,” says Mitch, whose first preference was to build professional sporting facilities at camp for rental to various organizations during the off-season. “This is by no means an endorsement by Ramah of gambling. The casino and the camp are two completely separate entities. The most important thing is that it will translate into a stronger, better Ramah and when our edot (sections) have Casino Nights, they’ll be much more realistic.”

Preliminary architectural renderings show the Chadar (Dining Hall) upgraded for use as a slot-machine house with one-dollar, five-dollar and ten-dollar boxes. The newly re-built kitchen will be further expanded along with a high-tech sports bar to serve thousands of hungry and thirsty gamblers every day.

The Beit Am Gadol (Big Rec Hall) will be extensively renovated and will house dozens of table games (including several poker tables) and a high-stakes baccarat room. Plans also call for the construction of a 290-room hotel, a huge entertainment and recreational centre, ample parking and transportation facilities along with other buildings that will also serve the camp well during the summer.

“I’ve always wanted to deal cards,” says Business Manager Dennis Maister. “I never thought I’d do it, though, at Ramah.”

Undeniably, the project will have an impact on the physical side of Ramah but less than one might expect and many of the new facilities will be built on land owned by Ramah far from the centre of camp.

“We were quite insistent on this point,” says Mitch. “Following our demands, we have assurances from the project’s backers and architects that they will preserve the nature of the site and respect the magnificent physical setting which is so much part of Ramah.”

Editor’s note: Regular readers of Kol Ramah who actually believed last year’s cover story about Ramah almost canceling the second month of camp due to monsoon rains and massive flooding are advised to already start saving up for the future Casino Ramah project.

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