The preferred site for the soon-to-be relocated downtown Sydney fire station does not appear to be everybody’s first choice.
The proposed location, presently the site of a Cape Breton Regional Municipality-owned and Sydney Downtown Development Society-operated parking lot on the south west corner of George and Pitt streets, was identified as the most practical in terms of giving firefighters the most rapid access time to its response zone.
But after a Cape Breton Post story published on Saturday revealed the likely site for the relocated station, patrons of the Highland Arts Theatre voiced their opinions on the downtown entertainment venue’s Facebook page.
“What I discovered very quickly was that people were not happy about it,” said HAT artistic and executive director Wesley Colford, who added that more than 32,000 people attended some 150 HAT productions in 2018.
“Everyone understands that public safety is paramount and must be our primary concern, but at the same time at least 75 per cent of the comments indicated there would be a negative impact on ticket sales.”
Colford said he was disappointed that nobody contacted the HAT and he feels left out of a conversation he believes should include the interests of the theatre’s patrons.
“A lot of our patrons are elderly and many have to deal with mobility issues, so when there are big snowbanks and there’s ice everywhere they don’t have the same privilege as some of us might in being able to walk a block or two without fear of slipping and falling,” he said, noting that the preferred fire station site presently offers 86 parking spaces heavily utilized by people attending HAT productions.
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.
“You can’t just draw a circle around a potential fire station and say this is where they can respond to in five minutes, so what the IAFF program does is take into account all of the streets, the traffic flows, issues like one-way streets, and looks into response times for all of the streets in the community as well as considering whether or not a potential site is owned by the CBRM,” said Jody Wrathall, president of the IAFF local 2779, who acknowledged that the formula only took the physical logistics into account.
“It is not based on political input or public input or even our input — it’s a tried and true formula that has been proven to work.”
Wrathall said the formula actually produced two locations, although the George/Pitt corner was deemed the more favourable. He said the second location was beside the railway tracks across from Wentworth Park on the site where a Needs Convenience store presently stands. However, he said the drawback of that potential site was its location at a part of George Street that tends to become bottlenecked.
Neither Wrathall nor Colford expect the sound of sirens to be an issue with the former explaining that the fire station itself would serve as a sound buffer as the trucks head out onto George Street.
Meanwhile, CBRM Coun. Eldon MacDonald, who represents the area and has long championed the cause of a more robust and economically prosperous Sydney core, said he’s hopeful that a “big picture” parking strategy will be adopted as the downtown is redeveloped and that the concerns of some HAT patrons will be absolved.
“If that parking lot is chosen to be the new fire station location then I don’t think it will be to the detriment of the HAT — I am a big supporter of the HAT and attend a lot of performances and I would never do anything to the detriment of the HAT or the downtown core,” said MacDonald.
“Nobody wants to see our community move forward more than I do, I wake up every day trying to make our waterfront and our downtown better — however the reality is that I have to look at the information that comes back from our staff and, in this case, the IAFF report which strongly recommended that location.”
MacDonald expects the matter will come before municipal council for approval sooner rather than later given the province’s commitment to starting work on the new Nova Scotia Community College campus as soon as possible. The Nova Scotia government has estimated it will cost roughly $18 million to cover the land acquisition, site preparation, detailed design and development of the new campus.