New Brunswick

Fate of historic Saint John courthouse could be sealed tonight

Saint John city council votes tonight on a motion to approve $19,000 for the Saint John Theatre Company's proposed expansion into the beleaguered Sydney Street courthouse.

City council must decide whether to match funding for theatre company's feasibility study

Saint John council votes tonight on funding for a feasibility study that could help seal the future of the Sydney Street courthouse, pictured here in 1980. It was designated a National Historic Site in 1974. (Parks Canada Agency/ Agence Parcs Canada)

The Saint John Theatre Company has outgrown its space at 112 Princess St. and is seeking $19,000 from the city to examine an expansion into the old Sydney Street courthouse.

The courthouse built in 1829 is a national and provincial historic site, well-known for its three-storey spiral staircase and elegant Neo-classical facade.

We are throwing them a lifeline by offering them a reasonable means for the development of this property.- Stephen Tobias, Saint John Theatre Company

But the building has been vacant since 2013, and the New Brunswick Historical Society, under the leadership of Saint John lawyer John Barry and his late colleague Frank Leger, has been engaged in a high-profile battle with the City of Saint John to save the building.

The Saint John Theatre Company could put the building to excellent use, said Stephen Tobias, the executive director of the company, which has tripled in size since it moved to a Princess Street property nine years ago. 

"We are throwing them a lifeline by offering them a reasonable means for the development of this property," Tobias said of city council's struggles over the future of the old courthouse.

The theatre company has won multiple Heritage Development Board awards for its rehabilitation of the BMO Theatre at 112 Princess St., a once dilapidated heritage building in which the company invested close to $2 million.

The Saint John Theatre Company has made award-winning renovations to the BMO Theatre at 112 Princess St. since taking it over nine years ago. The company says it has now outgrown the space. (Submitted by the Saint John Theatre Company)

"The theatre company has a strong track record of finding support," Tobias said.

Saint John architecture firm Acre Architects, and Fredericton heritage architect and heritage specialist John Leroux are both part of the facility advisory committee.

With performance and rehearsal space in high demand, the theatre company is developing an arts incubator and residency program, which would see emerging artists travel to Saint John to work with the company for one-year terms, Tobias said.

While saving the building would be a happy side-effect, "for us, the building is a tool to execute a business plan for the development of new programming that we've been working on for a couple of years now," Tobias said.

"We did some feasibility studies last year that indicate it's a great program, but we have no space to house it."

The 191-year-old Sydney Street courthouse was promoted as a tourist attraction until it closed in 2013. (Julia Wright /CBC)

Study required

Before anything further can be done, Tobias said, the building needs to be thoroughly assessed.

When a 191-year-old building is concerned, "the normal rules of construction do not apply," he said.

"Certainly, this project is a multimillion-dollar project. Whether it is three, ten, or 15 million is what we need to find out right now."

Half the $38,000 required for the feasibility study has been provided by the Regional Development Corporation. To satisfy the corporation's requirement for matching funding, Saint John Theatre Company is asking the city to support the remaining half of the cost of the proposed design review and feasibility study.

The deadline for the city to provide the matching funding is Wednesday.

This design review is part of a larger scope of feasibility and consulting work valued at $147,000 and has been funded to date by ACOA, the province, private donors and the theatre company.

This freestanding stone spiral staircase is the most impressive feature of the Sydney Street courthouse. (Bobbi-Jean MacKinnon/CBC)

In the event the theatre company found a problem that scared them off the renovations, Tobias said, the report would become the property of the city and the province to use in wooing future investment.

"We need to get this done quickly," said Tobias. "We are up against some deadlines with Canadian Heritage and with the province. Plus, the thing about buildings is that once you can visibly see that they're in trouble, they are usually past the point of saving.

"In point of fact, this is probably the ideal time for an intervention to be made on this property."

At its Monday meeting, Saint John council will vote on a motion put forward by Coun. John MacKenzie that the city provide the matching funds. 

'No one else' looking at site

The company has been looking at several properties over the past 18 months, Tobias said, but the Sydney Street courthouse emerged as a clear choice.

Earlier this year, the New Brunswick Historical Society argued to council that the City of Saint John has a "legal obligation" under a 1826 Declaration of Trust  to take possession of the building. The group also suggested the site be considered in council's search for a suitable site to relocate city hall — a proposal the city has rejected.

"Now that everybody understands that city hall is never going to go into that building," Tobias said, "we've been looking at it for a year, and I can say with certainty that no one else is looking at the property."

The courthouse, which was built in 1829, is a national and provincial historic site with an elegant Neo-classical facade. It has been vacant since 2013

In a letter dated May 23, 2017, the New Brunswick Historical Society registered its "dismay" that council failed in a February 23, 2017, resolution to address the city's "moral and legal obligations" under the 19th-century trust.

The Saint John Theatre Company needs the support of the city to secure funding from Canadian Heritage.

"Considering that the city is a stakeholder in the property and with the development of the new $270,000 growth fund," Tobias said, "it felt like it was a good fit to have this discussion with the city."

"We very quickly began to understand that this represented the highest and best use for that building, and a building that is a good fit for what we're proposing.

"It's a brilliant building — a signature property for the city. If that property gets into jeopardy, whether the city likes it or not they are going to wear that problem."

With files from Information Morning Saint John