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The Col. James Layton Ralston Armoury, which hosts the North Nova Scotia Highlanders Regimental Museum and local cadet groups, has been shuttered by the federal government until further notice because of structural concerns.
On Tuesday, museum curator Ray Coulson received an email from Linda Norman, property officer for the Department of National Defence, stating that the building was “determined to be unsafe for occupancy” and requesting all keys to be turned in. The department is waiting for recommendations from recent repairs.
“When that report’s back, they’re going to see what they’re going to do,” said Coulson. “Until then, it’s closed. We have no access to the building.”
No word has been made yet on the structural circumstances leading to the closure. The museum memorabilia remains in the nationally designated historic building and the army, navy, and air cadet groups have been advised to find an alternate location for next season, according to the email.
Cumberland-Colchester MP Lenore Zann said she was “shocked” when she saw the email forwarded by John Wales, the museum's deputy curator.
“I immediately wrote back to the public servant who had sent the email requesting a copy of the study that supposedly shows that the building is unsafe,” she said. “I made some phone calls as well to DND to ask for help on behalf of my constituents who would like to see that building saved.”
Cumberland North MLA Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin, Zann and Amherst Mayor David Kogan have met several times with department staff since plans were considered to divest the Armoury in 2017.
“At the last meeting, I asked the representative from the Department of National Defence if there was any chance of them closing it suddenly and taking away this opportunity for the community to keep the building,” said Smith-McCrossin. “He looked me in the eye and said ‘no.’”
Save the building?
Last year, the Amherst Armouries Plus Society was formed to examine ways to save the building and grounds. The society has been seeking access to a building study conducted by the federal government to make its own evaluation of whether the structure is worth saving.
“We have been asking them for reports on what repairs are needed, as well as operational expenses, for three years, and they have refused to share that information,” said Smith-McCrossin.
According to Coulson, not enough repairs have happened.
“It’s like your house,” he said. “If you don’t do the small things in your house, after a while it builds up. They’ve got to do some real work on it.”
Amherst Coun. Darrell Jones, who was once a Highlander himself, is frustrated with the notice.
“It’s a shame for the museum to be treated this way, as well as Mr. Coulson,” he said. “We also have to remember that we have three cadet corps here. They’re going to have to find someplace to go.”
He cautions that that town cannot take over the building.
“The taxpayers of Amherst really can’t afford to do it … the provincial government, the federal government, they’re going to have to put money into that to keep it going,” he said.
A few weeks ago, Zann met with the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, which she says is interested in helping finance a feasibility study, but need the building report from the department to do so.
She cites the Truro Old Normal College, which was considered for demolition but later opened as the Truro branch of the Colchester-East Hants Public Library, as evidence that old buildings can be restored. She was part of the heritage committee that used a feasibility study to prove the profitability of repurposing the building.
“It has totally rejuvenated the town ... I don't see why we can't do something like that with the armories.”
The armoury has played an integral role in the lives of community members over the years.
Rhodes Kellegrew remembers being part of the army cadet corps in the 1960s. On Wednesday afternoons, students would walk from school in their uniforms to the armoury for cadet training, including shooting practice in the basement’s rifle range. At the end of the year, there was a large parade and community demonstration showing what they had learned.
“Almost every boy in Amherst Regional High School from the ’60s would have gone to one (of the cadet groups),” he said.
Kellegrew, who now lives in Cole Harbour, also recalls distinguished fiddler Ivan Hicks hosting popular rock n’ roll dances in the 1970s.
“There's a lot of history in the building,” he said. “(It’s) a shame to see it being torn down. They're spending a fortune down here in Halifax, rebuilding and doing whatever for the armoury in Halifax, so surely they could save that one too.”
Opened in 1915, the armoury was the birthplace of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, where 1,044 men trained for battle during the Second World War. Of those Highlanders, 486 did not return.
“That building represents the people that trained and served and sacrificed for our country as well as our youth, our leaders of tomorrow,” said Smith-McCrossin. “The federal government should be looking at ways of supporting and growing rural Canada, not contributing to (its) decline.”
Members of the community are invited to listen to speakers, including Smith-McCrossin, Zann, Coulson, Wales, and cadet members, outside of the armoury this Thursday at 6 p.m. while following public health safety protocols.