New Brunswick

The show must go on: Saint John supports theatre's bid for old courthouse

The Saint John Theatre Company got its wish after common council agreed to pay for half of the feasibility study into whether the Sydney Street courthouse could house the performance company.

Decision means city will provide $19,000 to see if the courthouse can be converted to a theatre

Saint John council voted to support a feasibility study that could help seal the future of the Sydney Street courthouse, pictured here in 1980. (Parks Canada Agency/ Agence Parcs Canada)

The Saint John Theatre Company got its wish after common council agreed to pay for half of the feasibility study into whether the Sydney Street courthouse could house the performance company.

"We are, of course, extremely grateful," said Stephen Tobias, executive director of the theatre company in a Facebook post. "Council made a wise and judicious decision. … We look forward to starting work on the next phase of the project."

The passing of the motion means the city will kick in $19,000, or half the cost of a $38,000 feasibility study. The study aims to find out whether the courthouse, which has been vacant since 2013, can be converted to a theatre.

Built in 1829, the courthouse is a national and provincial historic site, with a three-storey spiral staircase and elegant neo-classical facade.

Efforts to save the old courthouse have been made by the New Brunswick Historical Society in a widely publicized struggle with the City of Saint John.

A huge commitment 

While the motion Monday passed with only three dissenting votes, a heated debate flared up at the meeting.

Deputy Mayor Shirley McAlary and Coun. David Merrithew said the building is provincially owned and suggested the responsibility for keeping it in working order was being passed off to the city.

Merrithew  also worried about long-running commitments to the building.

"If we support it, what I think it opens up to us is, if it's successful, what will absolutely in my mind, be a multimillion-dollar campaign," he said. "One I'm convinced we have no feasible way to support."

McAlary went on to say she is more comfortable supporting the company to help put on performances, rather than fund a study that doesn't guarantee a positive result.

The city will kick in $19,000 to see if the courthouse, which has been vacant since 2013, can become the new home of the Saint John Theatre Company. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

But for Coun. Greg Norton, the building's ownership doesn't mean council can shrug off responsibility to the city's uptown heritage.

"From my perspective we can't shed responsibility, that quite arguably, is one of the crown jewels of our city's built heritage," he said.

Norton said cultural investments by the city should extend to more than just events like the Tall Ship Festival, something he also supports.

"Tall Ships is going to sail into Saint John and sail out in 72 hours. The Saint John Theatre Company has set sail and never left," he said.

Theatre company grows

In a previous interview, Tobias said the theatre company has tripled in size since it moved into its Princess Street location nine years ago.

When asked where the money would come from, Coun. John MacKenzie suggested the growth committee fund, which is designated for projects such as this one.

Coun. Ray Strowbridge said he'd support the movement no matter where the money came from.

"We're the what, not the how," he said.

In the end, only Coun. Sean Casey, Merrithew and McAlary voted against supporting the study.

Tobias wrote that he wasn't sure when the feasibility study would be completed, but he hoped soon.

"We are very pleased with the results and I'll now move forward as fast as possible," he said.

With files from Julia Wright