Nova Scotia

CBRM's decision to place fire station next to Sydney arts theatre garners bad reviews

Some residents of Cape Breton Regional Municipality are turning up the heat after council's decision to relocate the main fire station to a parking lot next to the Highland Arts Theatre, known as the HAT, in downtown Sydney.

'The current administration is not interested in what the public has to say about important decisions'

The contractor started construction on the new fire station at the corner of George and Pitt streets in Sydney, N.S., last week, but stopped again. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Some residents of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality are turning up the heat after council's decision to relocate the main fire station to a parking lot next to the Highland Arts Theatre, known as the HAT, in downtown Sydney.

A Facebook group called Help the HAT has been actively posting questions and concerns about the council decision to site the new station at a municipally-owned lot on the corner of Pitt and George streets and several members have asked the Nova Scotia Office of the Ombudsman to investigate.

Trish O'Neill, one of the group organizers and a theatre patron whose husband and children have performed at the HAT, said the ombudsman's office is interested in looking into the matter.

"What I want the ombudsman to do [is] just make sure that all the i's were dotted and the t's were crossed and truthfully to just try to get some more energy and eyes on this municipality and how it has made decisions," she said.

The theatre offers young people and adults an alternative to sports and it has been very supportive of the LGBTQ community, O'Neill said.

"There's so much that the HAT offers to CBRM that I don't ... understand why our mayor wants to put it at risk by putting a fire station across the street from it."

The Highland Arts Theatre in Sydney. (Holly Conners/CBC)

The new fire station is needed because the existing one on Esplanade has to move to make way for the Nova Scotia Community College, which is building a new Marconi campus on the downtown waterfront.

Some businesses and theatre supporters have expressed concerns about the loss of the parking lot at George and Pitt and the possibility of sirens going off during theatre performances.

The Facebook group has also promoted an online petition with more than 2,200 signatures asking council to reconsider its decision.

O'Neill said the decision was made without public consultation, which was promised by Mayor Cecil Clarke back in December.

"This is probably a done deal, but I just think that with the election coming up, I think it's important that people understand that the current administration is not interested in what the public has to say about important decisions," she said.

Response time

Chris Corbett, an actor who has performed in shows at the theatre, said the noise and parking issues would be minor concerns.

He said the firefighters union conducted a study of two possible sites and the one not chosen would have provided better response times for more homes.

"Any time you're talking about some kind of fire emergency, medical emergency, any kind of emergency ... seconds matter," Corbett said.

"If you can reach more people within three minutes from a different location, to me, that was the more pressing issue."

He also called for more public input into decision making at city hall.

"The fact that we were shut out entirely and not given an opportunity to voice our concerns, that's what really rankles," Corbett said.

The $4.5-million tender to build the new fire station was awarded Friday to Joneljim Construction.

Construction began early

O'Neill and Corbett said it appeared the contractor jumped the gun by starting work at the site a couple of days before the tender was officially awarded.

CBRM spokesperson Christina Lamey confirmed that.

"It was not supposed to have started so soon," she said.​​​​​​

Lamey said the municipality had held some meetings with the contractor before the official awarding of the tender and the contractor "assumed" they could get started.

She said a new parking lot has already been established on the other side of Pitt Street, next to Dooly's.

Mayor Cecil Clarke says the decision for where to locate the fire station was made 'in the best interest of safety, development and accommodation.' (Tom Ayers/CBC)

The mayor, who has said he will announce this week whether he intends to run for re-election, declined to be interviewed for this story.

However, in an email, he said the proper selection process was followed by council.

"I appreciate there are people who don't agree with the outcomes, but the council made a decision ... in the best interest of safety, development and accommodation, as necessitated by the relocation of NSCC to the Sydney Waterfront," Clarke said.

"At the end of the day, downtown Sydney will have a beautiful, state of the art fire and emergency centre and station, serving and protecting CBRM citizens and businesses in the surrounding community in addition to parking space directly across the street from the former lot."

In December, Clarke told media that two sites for the new fire station had been discussed at an in-camera meeting and that council and the firefighters preferred the municipally-owned lot at the corner of George and Pitt.

At the time, he said no final decision had been made, but there would "absolutely" be an opportunity for public input.

In February, council was presented with a staff recommendation to select the site on George and Pitt.

No public participation

Council was told the second option, on land further south at the corner of George and Glenwood streets, across from Wentworth Park, was too small and access to the street would not be favourable.

At the time, some councillors questioned the lack of public participation in the decision, but chief administrative officer Marie Walsh said it wasn't necessary.

She said it was a question of public safety and the municipality relied on advice from the firefighters.

Walsh also said since CBRM already owns the lot at Pitt and George, some of the provincial money coming in due to the relocation of the station on the waterfront would be available to buy or lease parking space elsewhere.

In the end, the mayor and councillors voted unanimously to approve the staff recommendation.



Tom Ayers


Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for 37 years. He has spent the last 19 covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at