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CBRM council told it could cost $30M to renovate, expand old courthouse to make new library

Cape Breton Regional Municipality has been told it could cost $30 million to renovate and expand the old courthouse next to Wentworth Park in Sydney, N.S., to house a new central library. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)
Cape Breton Regional Municipality has been told it could cost $30 million to renovate and expand the old courthouse next to Wentworth Park in Sydney, N.S., to house a new central library. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)

Some officials with the Cape Breton Regional Library are not in favour of moving the main book repository to the old courthouse in Sydney, N.S.

James Abend, a senior designer with Stantec Consulting, told Cape Breton Regional Municipality council on Tuesday the courthouse building on Crescent Street is structurally sound, but it could cost $30 million to renovate and expand it to 43,000 square feet for use as the main library.

Lisa Mulak, the regional librarian, called the proposal disappointing.

"If you can build new and it's purpose built and it's accessible and it's a little more money, for us, as library staff that work and offer the service, we would rather see a new building," she said. "It certainly could delay things longer, but maybe we'd get it right."

Coun. Eldon MacDonald, who chairs the library board, said the expansion plans could take 20 years and the $30-million estimate for renovation is likely not enough to make the courthouse work.

"I dare say that I think it's probably more," he said.

Coun. Eldon MacDonald says building a new library from scratch would be better for CBRM in the long run than renovating an old building that could cost more than $30 million.
Coun. Eldon MacDonald says building a new library from scratch would be better for CBRM in the long run than renovating an old building that could cost more than $30 million.

Coun. Eldon MacDonald says building a new library from scratch would be better for CBRM in the long run than renovating an old building that could cost more than $30 million. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

"This is a very, very early guesstimate on what that price tag could be and I'm not too sure that anybody that makes those guesstimates always comes in at too high of a price. It's usually lower and then prices usually go up from there."

Abend said it is more environmentally sustainable to reuse an old building than to build a new one, but MacDonald said  a renovation has to match the intended use and, in this case, the courthouse would not be suitable for a library.

The councillor said a new building would be better in the long run.

"This is either a full, complete renovation or a new build, for me, and I've always preferred a new build," MacDonald said. "I think it's the best opportunity for our community."

CBRM council has been looking for a new main library building for at least 15 years. The existing James McConnell Memorial Library building on Falmouth Street in downtown Sydney has long been considered too small and too old to renovate.

In 2018, a local developer agreed to put a new library building on Sydney's downtown waterfront, where the Royal Cape Breton Yacht Club used to be, but in 2021, council refused to extend the deal, saying the $32-million price tag was too steep.

MacDonald said that could have been a better deal.

"We should be well underway with building the library that was proposed three years ago, but I respect the opinion of council ... they decided not to go that way."

Meeting planned with library board, staff

In 2022, council began looking at the courthouse, which currently houses some federal government offices and faces Wentworth Park. Last February, Mayor Amanda McDougall called for a study on the feasibility of renovating it and expanding it.

She had said council needed the information quickly to avoid going another year without applying for funds.

Earlier this month, the mayor could not say why it has taken so long to get the results of the feasibility study.

Council plans to meet with the library board and staff in the next few weeks to go over the courthouse renovation proposal.

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