A food bank, a community garden and affordable housing units are all part of the North Sydney Food Bank Society's plan for the former Seton elementary school.
Now proud owners of the property, phase one of the project involves renovating the 6,000 square feet dedicated to the food bank. Then the remaining space will be renovated into 22 housing units which will be a mix of market-value and subsidized housing.
"Keys are in hand. All we're waiting on now is the deed and then we'll get started on the construction," said food bank director Lawrence Shebib.
"It's a lot of work … but there's a gang of people behind me ... that without their support we wouldn't be where we are with it. People say it's a great project, keep on trucking."
During a tour of the school, which closed in June 2020, Shebib explained the layout of the new location and how they were expanding with five times more space than their current 1,200-square-foot location.
Things like laundry and food storage won't have to be crammed into one small area. The chalkboard-filled classrooms are being converted into a laundry facility, gently-used clothing store and community kitchen for cooking classes.
"No one wants to be at a food bank. It's very heartbreaking to see people line up outside the North Sydney Food Bank on a busy street because there's little parking and no room for them to wait inside," said CBRM Dist. 2 Coun. Earlene MacMullin, who represents North Sydney.
"I have to give Lawrence credit, it was a very large idea and he pulled it together. (At the new location) you can pull off the road, there's room to park, your kids can play and you're not in the way of traffic."
Shebib is also praised by another Cape Breton Regional Municipality councillor for getting the project off the ground, Dist. 1 Coun. Clarence Prince, who represents neighbouring Sydney Mines.
"I really commend Lawrence and his crew for all their hard work pulling this together and to Lawrence for really pressing it," he said. "He pressed a lot of buttons to get this going so he could fulfil his vision."
On the lookout for a suitable building for a food bank expansion, and with no available municipal properties in the area, Shebib suggested Seton school when it closed.
Since the school was owned by the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional Centre for Education, the CBRM needed to acquire the property before then selling it to the North Sydney Food Bank Society. Before the municipality would do that, the food bank society needed to prove they could operate and maintain the property.
With the help of the Cape Breton Partnership, a business plan was created which included market-value and affordable housing units to create a revenue stream that can be used for property maintenance.
"They had a viable and self-sustainable plan. You really need to provide that when doing something like this," MacMullin said.
"The municipality can't be taking on new buildings. (Project like this) need to have a viable plan to show they can do it themselves."
Hopes are the food bank can move into their new location before Christmas. Then the focus will turn to phase two — building the 22 rental units. Once completed, that will make the North Sydney Food Bank one of a kind.
"There's no other project, to the best of my knowledge, that would have a food bank and affordable housing in the same location, around here. There might be one in Toronto," Shebib said. "It's really a unique project for Cape Breton."