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Kingston's storied Grad Club facing closure as Queen's hikes rent

The Grad Club at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., has been a campus landmark for decades. The university, which owns the building, plans to raise the rent by more than 300 per cent over the next five years. (Dan Taekema/CBC - image credit)
The Grad Club at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., has been a campus landmark for decades. The university, which owns the building, plans to raise the rent by more than 300 per cent over the next five years. (Dan Taekema/CBC - image credit)

It hosted some of The Tragically Hip's earliest shows and has been a gathering place for the local LGBTQ community, not to mention its decades-old status as a staple of the graduate student scene at Queen's University.

But now the Grad Club in Kingston, Ont., says it's at risk of closing, partly due to a more than 300 per cent rent increase being levied by the university.

Starting in September, Queen's wants to begin raising the rent on the building that sits at the corner of Union and Barrie streets to $4,200 a month from $1,000. The increase would take effect gradually over the next five years.

That doesn't sit well with the non-profit Society of Graduate and Professional Students that runs the club, and has operated in some capacity since 1963 before renting the current location in 1979.

"I think Queen's is trying to squeeze water from a stone all over campus, and hurting some of the folks who are already hurting the most," said Astrid Hobill, the Grad Club's director of operations.

Astrid Hobill is drector of operations at the Grad Club, run by a non-profit organization consisting of graduate and professional students at Queen's University.
Astrid Hobill is drector of operations at the Grad Club, run by a non-profit organization consisting of graduate and professional students at Queen's University.

Astrid Hobill is drector of operations at the Grad Club, run by a non-profit organization consisting of graduate and professional students at Queen's University. She says the rent increase could cause the club to close. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The club serves as both a dedicated study space for students and a favourite gathering place for the wider Queen's and Kingston communities, Hobill said.

"A lot of community space and community feeling will be lost if this space is lost," she said.

LISTEN | Local Kingston student hub is now at risk of closing after a massive rent increase

Post-secondary institutions in Ontario have been facing a funding crunch in recent years amid a tuition freeze for Canadian students.

In December, Queen's provost Matthew Evans said he was "concerned about the survival of this institution" amid a $48-million deficit. Principal Patrick Deane later reassured worried staff and students that the university is not facing imminent financial collapse or closure.

Cost exceeding rent, university says

In a statement to CBC, the university said it recognizes the value the Grad Club provides to both students and the community, but pointed out it hasn't raised the building's rent in more than a decade. The club is currently paying more than four times less than it would for a similar space in Kingston, the university said.

The university also noted it provided the Grad Club with rent relief for two years during the pandemic, but said  maintenance and upgrades to the building have "have far exceeded the [rental income] for several years," costing nearly $650,000 since 2017.

The Grad Club at Queen's University sits at the corner of Union and Barrie streets in Kingston, Ont.
The Grad Club at Queen's University sits at the corner of Union and Barrie streets in Kingston, Ont.

The Grad Club at Queen's University sits at the corner of Union and Barrie streets. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Queen's said it believes phasing in the rent increase will help the non-profit that runs the Grad Club "prepare and adapt."

"We are always open to discussing their finances and options with them," the university wrote.

Even with the rent relief, Hobill said the Grad Club suffered a setback last year when it had to close for a month because of a plumbing problem.

"We're just finally starting to claw our way back from under that," she said, adding the society is also working to repay a Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) loan it took out during the pandemic.

A local landmark

Chris Eckert, a professor and associate head of the biology department at Queen's, said it's hard to imagine his more than 30-year career at the university without the familiar "academic living room."

"If you're a music lover as I am, you know about the Grad Club regardless of where you live in Ontario," he said, reminiscing about the bands the venue has hosted over the years including the Constantines, Joel Plaskett, Doug Paisley, Sarah Harmer and of course local heroes the Hip.

But the club is more than just a place to study and take in live music, Eckert said: it's also been instrumental in attracting faculty to the university, something he hopes Queen's administrators take into account.

"Talking to several of my now colleagues, that trip to the Grad Club, that's when they realized that actually the biology department has a great culture and they can imagine an academic home for themselves here," he said.