Administration, Feds debate who can best make use of student-financed building
By next April, Fed Hall will be Feds’ no more.
In a March 25th memo addressed to the Federation of Students, the University of Waterloo announced its intention “not to renew the Lease Agreement… between the Federation of Students and the University of Waterloo concerning the lease of Federation Hall.”
The university indicated that it intends to take control of operations at Fed Hall when the current lease expires April 30, 2012.
The memo, signed by Associate Provost Bud Walker and Geoffrey McBoyle, Vice President Academic and Provost, was addressed to Sarah Cook, Feds vice president of administration.
According to Walker, the reason for the takeover is simple: the university needs the space, and believes it can make better use of Fed Hall than the Feds.
Walker claimed that the university takes exception to the number of off-campus groups that have been making use of Fed Hall since it was revamped as a space for banquets and parties in the mid ‘2000s.
“The evolution of Fed Hall was getting less and less in support of students and more and more as a public hall,” Walker said.
He pointed to statistics showing that only 44 per cent of the 125 events hosted at Fed Hall between September 2009 and August 2010 were for UW student groups.
By contrast, nearly 20 per cent of events hosted at Federation Hall during that time were private weddings, 15 per cent were events hosted by Waterloo-based company Research In Motion, 10 per cent were high school events and the remainder were for “other” off-campus groups.
“There were discussions in past years about the level of non-university activity, because essentially we don’t want that,” Walker said. “We’re not here to operate a community centre for the public.”
Walker said the university is looking to relocate its catering operations from Festival Hall – which is being transformed into office space for the new Student Success Centre – to Federation Hall.
“We’re going to maintain all the student events that are going to go on up [in Federation Hall]… and then other student and university events that would have normally been run in Festival Hall will be moved up there, and it will be run by [UW] Food Services.”
Cook said the administration’s reasoning doesn’t sit well with her, saying that the Feds have been hosting off-campus events for more than four years and “there’s never been an alarm bell before.”
Cook said she’s suspicious that the university has taken an interest in Federation Hall now that the operation has become economically viable.
“It seems like the university thinks it’s easier to take a pre-existing venue like Fed Hall, since we have this agreement, than to kick out a university department,” she said.
Originally conceived as a night club and concert venue, Fed Hall struggled in recent years to remain relevant, owing in part to the number of underage students attending university.
That slump in attendance was reflected in the numbers: in 2007, the operation lost more than $97,000. In an effort to turn things around, the Feds brought in new management and began advertising the space more for catered events and receptions.
The strategy paid off. After losing $62,000 in 2008, the Feds earned a small profit from Fed Hall in 2009, according to budget reports.
In 2010, Fed Hall profits jumped dramatically to $45,600. As of February, the operation was also on track to turn a profit in 2011.
Sarah Cook noted that the money brought in from hosting outside groups helps to subsidize student groups that want to rent the hall.
Those groups can apply to have the $2,000 rental fee waived, which helps make the venue accessible to a variety of students, Cook explained.
“I’m not sure if Food Services is open to doing something like that… our bottom line is ensuring that, even if we lose the building, students still have access to it,” she said.
The future of employees working at Federation Hall is also in limbo. The hall employs three full-time managers and between 70 and 90 part-time workers, most of whom are students.
Federation Hall manager Adrian Moloney, whose contract coincidentally expires on the same month that UW plans to retake the hall, declined to speculate whether UW Food Services would be willing to hire him or his staff.
“My position is that I’m employed by the Federation of Students and until the day my contract expires that’s who I’m working for,” Moloney said.
He added that all bookings after April 2012 have been put on hold until there is a plan in place to accommodate the clients.
Walker said it’s still too early to know how UW Food Services might run Federation Hall, or whether it would retain staff currently working on the premises.
One thing both parties agree on is that the university is well within its rights to take Federation Hall.
In a 1984 referendum, UW students voted to provide $1.5 million in financing for the building. In return, the Federation of Students received “sole and exclusive” use of the building for 20 years.
However, in subsequent agreements, key clauses that protected Federation Hall from being taken over by the university were removed.
It’s a frustrating situation to inherit such a poor bargaining position, but one the current Federation of Students has to live with, Cook said.
However, she added, “there’s also the angle that students paid for the building and you’re just deciding not to re-lease it to us so that you can use it for one of your operations. Is that philosophically fair?”
Edgar Bering, a longtime student activist at UW who has set up a website to organize opposition to the takeover, agreed.
“I’m not sure if we should keep Fed Hall,” Bering emphasized. “What I am sure of is that we have in place a democratic system for making collective decisions… and the university unilaterally deciding to take [the hall] away disregards that.”