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Frustrations continue to simmer over CBRM council’s decision to relocate Sydney’s downtown fire station across the street from a popular entertainment venue.
Trish O’Neill, a regular patron of the Highland Arts Theatre and an organizer with the Help the Hat lobbying group, said she’s having trouble coming to terms with the fact that the decision to move the facility to a municipality-owned lot on the corner of George and Pitt streets was rendered without public consultation. And, she said a 2,200-name petition calling on council to reverse its fire station location decision has had no effect thus far.
“It’s just so very, very frustrating,” said O’Neill, who in early March organized a rally in front of city hall to protest the decision.
“I don’t understand how it is that Mayor Cecil Clarke doesn’t see that this is a very important economic driver in Sydney and I don’t get why he is willing to flush it down the toilet for no reason. Why does he feel that this theatre is worth potentially destroying with a fire station that could go in any number of other places?”
Earlier this week, O’Neill penned a stinging letter to the editor of the Cape Breton Post in which she was critical of the way the CBRM handled the fire station issue. She also called on council to allow for the presentation of the latest petition that she sent on July 15.
When asked about the issue, Clarke confirmed that the tender process for fire station construction is well underway and that alternative parking has been identified across the street. And while he did not commit to reviewing the decision, he said there are processes in place for getting issues on the council agenda.
“Council made a decision that any agenda requests that come through will go forward — there have been no requests for a special meeting of council,” said Clarke.
Veteran CBRM councillor George MacDonald explained that council made the choice after a positive endorsement from local firefighters.
“We based our decision on what we were told at council,” he said. “It went through council fairly quickly because the information we got was that it would not affect the Highland Arts Theatre too much.”
Other councillors, including Amanda McDougall, have repeatedly expressed the view that a public consultative process should be carried out. And Deputy Mayor Ivan Doncaster agreed with the call for more public engagement
“There should be an open line of communication with the people who are affected by the fire station going to that location — there should definitely be some more open communication between everybody," he said.
HAT artistic and executive director Wesley Colford confirmed they has not been consulted on the issue since the pre-COVID restriction days of early March.
“The most disheartening thing for me is that since we began six years ago we have been prospering often in spite of the municipality and not because of it and support from council and the municipality has been severely lacking,” said Colford.
“What’s worse is when they are actively putting up what appears, in our perspective, to be direct roadblocks to our success without giving us the respect of any amount of conversation.”
The preferred site of the future fire station was actually identified by an established “station location” formula courtesy of the International Association of Firefighters, the parent body of the local union representing Cape Breton Regional Municipality’s career firefighters.
For the record, CBRM chief administrative officer Marie Walsh defended the decision to approve the new location.
“It is a safety-related situation that we relied on experts and expert opinion from a report the (firefighters) union had put forward — so, that’s why we didn’t do a public consultation, I don’t consider it the same as any other building,” said Walsh, at a February meeting.
“We base it on response times, something that is acceptable and that can service the downtown given the amount of infrastructure there, so for this type of building I would rely on an expert as opposed to whether another building wants it next to them or not.”
The station is presently located on the Esplanade. It is still operating but must move to allow for the construction of the new Nova Scotia Community College facility on the Sydney waterfront.
Meanwhile, construction is already underway on the land beside the waterfront fire hall.