As students return, local businesses balance economic benefits with community safety

Three local business owners share their perspective on COVID-19 and the financial impacts of Queen’s students returning to Kingston 

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Jonathan McCreery is familiar with the common college town trope of the “town and gown”: the relationship between post-secondary students and the residents of the town which hosts them. The dynamics of this relationship—always symbiotic, sometimes adversarial—is something he’s well-acquainted with. 

“Having been born in Kingston, I am very aware that its residents love to bash Queen’s but also couldn’t live without its income,” McCreery, owner of Barcadia, a local bar situated in the hub, wrote in an email to The Journal.

Queen’s students have long been a force in Kingston’s economy, frequenting bars, restaurants, and stores. During the school year, local businesses rely on students to turn a profit, McCreery said. 

“As a business owner, we rely on the disposable income of students,” McCreery said. “Even before COVID-19 we tried to cater to students, as we are well aware of where the money comes from.”

However, due to COVID-19, the student-resident relationship may look slightly different this year. Unlike most Septembers when business owners look forward to the return of students, their arrival this year may bring not only a surge in business, but a surge in infection—as has been the case in other college towns. 

Balancing these risks and benefits is weighing on business owners’ minds as they implement COVID-19 safety protocols while trying to recover from a difficult first half of 2020.

Barcadia was closed until six weeks ago, with McCreery calling profits “non-existent.” Similarly, William Fisher, owner and operator of The Mansion Restaurant and Bar, said the restaurant struggled after it was forced to close on March 17. 

“We didn’t stay open to do takeout, so [the closure] made a big difference for sure, especially before patio season,” Fisher said. “Being able to stay open would’ve made a significant difference.”

Even after restaurant patios were allowed to open on June 10, The Mansion saw a lull after the initial rush. 

“There was a honeymoon phase of a good boost,” Fisher said. “But we suffered after the first two weeks. There weren’t many people coming in, and a lot of people are still tentative about coming inside. They’ll only come if [weather permits the] patio.”

According to Marc Gour, general manager of Phase 2, a local clothing store specializing in Queen’s merchandise, his store also took a “significant hit,” not only due to closure but because over the summer, “traffic was down significantly.”

Coming out of one of the most difficult summers in memory, McCreery, Fisher, and Gour all spoke positively about students returning to Kingston. 

“[At] this time of year, up to 50 per cent of business is university students,” Fisher said. “So we’re embracing [student’s return] and we are optimistic.”

Gour said Phase 2 is also welcoming Queen’s students back to Kingston. 

“For 39 years, we’ve catered to Queen’s students and we love them. They’re a good part of our business and we’re happy they’re here,” he said. “We absolutely love having students back. We love catering to them and we take as many [COVID-19] precautions as we possibly can and 99.99 per cent of having students back is absolutely wonderful.”

During the school year, 40 per cent of Barcadia’s business is made up of Queen’s students, according to McCreery. He’s also happy to have students back, seeing them as no different than any other customer.

“Queen’s has gotten a bad rap in these strange times,” he said. “Regardless of Queen’s or the age of our patrons, there’s always going to be ignorant people who feel as though the pandemic is not a big deal. It would seem as though the latest inclination is to blame students.”

Gour and McCreery have both noticed that Queen’s students have respected their institutions’ COVID-19 regulations. “Students have been very respectful of our rules,” McCreery said. 

Gour echoed the sentiment. “The vast majority [of Queen’s students] are well-intentioned and want to be careful.”

McCreery also sees the return of students as a challenge business owners will have to meet. “The reality is that any increase in population is going to be risky, be it Queen’s, St. Lawrence, or tourism,” he said. “The students returning is beneficial not only to the economy, but it also forces businesses to comply and adapt. COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere so businesses need to cope.”

Fisher feels similarly about welcoming students back to The Mansion. “It’s pretty obvious the variables go up when people from out of town come back into town, but [COVID-19 is] something the world has to deal with anyways. As people become immune or vaccines come forward, there will be a big change. But until then people will mingle a bit anyways. We’re anticipating being able to open our other floors soon and have student bookings.”

According to Gour and Fisher, business has already been up over the past few weeks. “Without question there’s a night-and-day difference since the summer,” Gour said. “We’re nowhere near numbers from last year, but it’s significantly better [since students began to return].”

All three businesses have implemented strict COVID-19 safety measures, limiting washroom and change room space, and spacing out tables and merchandise. McCreery said that although there were initial expenses associated with these measures, “now it’s just another facet of overhead [costs].”

Gour, McCreery, and Fisher are all looking at the full return of Queen’s-supported business optimistically. 

Gour said for him and other downtown business owners, he believes the return of Queen’s students to Kingston will be more beneficial than risky. 

“It’s a balance,” he said. “As a downtown business owner, I absolutely love Queen’s students. We’re glad they’re here.”

 

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