GRAVELBOURG – Through a somewhat confusing point of order, the tenants of the Gravelbourg Convent of Jesus and Mary will still need to pack their bags at the end of the month.
The decision rose out of a motion to table discussion about possibly extending the current 30-day eviction notice, which was defeated in a 4-3 vote - essentially terminating the contract between the Town of Gravelbourg and the tenants at the end of March.
Back on Feb. 23, tenants of the convent were given the notice, resulting from a decision at the regular Town Council meeting two days prior. Of the options presented before council at that meeting, they decided to give 30 days notice to tenants, then reduce heating “to keep the building on a life-support mode.”
In a letter from Gravelbourg Artisan Co-Op president Anna Smandych, she expressed the board’s feelings on the apparently sudden move from the Town.
“Understandably, the GAC board is heartbroken by the Town's decision to put the building on life support, instead of looking into options to save it,” she said. “This building is special, and gave many small businesses and artists a chance at having their own space to work out of when there were no other options in town. Finding space for us all elsewhere will be a monumental task.”
The GAC Board is seeking an extension of their lease until Sept. 1.
“Although we always knew there was a chance we couldn't stay forever the timing of the eviction seems off, as normally the boilers would be turned off in the coming weeks as the weather warms,” Smandych said.
Community events that the GAC host are slated to continue, such as the Member Showcase and Sale at the historic Renaissance Gaiety Theatre.
“Things might have to change, but we don't plan on going anywhere,” noted Smandych.
GAC will also have their annual general meeting on April 3.
The March 7 meeting of Town Council had seeds of hope as a delegation made up of GAC members and community supporters attended. Smandych and GAC vice president Lacey Langlois spoke on behalf of the cooperative and current tenants affected by the sudden eviction.
Smandych asked about the possibility of extending the notice until September for a smoother transition and allowing for tenants to find alternative spaces.
Councillor Teresa Williams acknowledged that she read submissions to Council from the groups, and that she understood the frustration and difficult position they’re currently faced with.
“What surprises me most is there was no acknowledgement of the burden to our taxpayers,” Williams said. “It’s also inconvenient to our taxpayers.”
She pointed to the approximately $69,000 deficit the Town absorbs, referencing a $85,000 cost to maintain the building minus $16,000 paid by renters. Williams further explained that if rent was increased, it could mean a $500 to $1,200 rent increase for tenants.
“That is just unreasonable to expect that kind of jump,” said Williams, adding that the idea of putting the convent on “life support” would save about two-thirds of the current cost to maintain it.
Some members of Council were on-side with helping the tenants, daring to chance that another boiler situation might not occur.
“Maybe it’s a gamble, but to carry it for another month, it’s not that it’s going to be that big of a cost saving,” said Councillor André Lorrain.
Councillor Sam Hawkins echoed these sentiments, noting he’s willing to explore other options.
“I really feel like we should take a chance, try to get through this month,” Hawkins said. “Hopefully it could go our way for both sides.”
Lorrain made the motion to table discussion, enabling a possibility to sit with affected members and explore alternatives. However, the motion was defeated without option to renegotiate the current contract or create a new one.
Community members in attendance were stunned and confused over what had transpired. Langlois asked Council for clarification about negotiating utilizing the space for warmer months, and received a “no” answer.
When asked for reaction after the meeting, Smandych summed up her response with “disappointed.”
“They had offered in their letter to us that we could rent in the warmer months,” she said, visibly shocked by what had transpired minutes earlier in Council chambers.
“Our request tonight was just to keep going through April,” said Langlois, adding that it didn’t seem like Council was interested.
When asked about whether tenants could afford an increase such as Williams noted in her comments, Smandych said it was not an option discussed previously.
“I would easily pay double what I am currently paying because the rates have been so low and I’ve been there for five years,” Langlois told SASKTODAY.ca. “They would still be less expensive than anything else I’ve found in town.”
Sara Joan Smit, a tenant who creates custom clothing, reflected Langlois’ comments regarding limited options available.
“Losing this space, which I use as a sewing studio and for my work at the U of R, essentially means that I will no longer have a space in town,” she told SASKTODAY.ca.
Smit has rented space for more than three years, and like many others, has become attached to the building.
“I've always understood that it is not a long-term rental space, but I am disappointed that the Town Council did not discuss the eviction with tenants at all,” Smit said. “The reasoning that high heating costs are the main issue seems illogical to me since we are just about at the time when the boiler is no longer needed.”
Despite this blow to the arts community in Gravelbourg, Langlois was certain of one thing.
“We’ll live to make more art,” she said.