Cape Breton Regional Municipality is getting $4.75 million from the Nova Scotia government to move its downtown Sydney fire station to make way for a new community college campus.
Council's decision earlier this year to relocate the fire station was met with controversy by residents and business owners who argued they were not properly consulted.
A recent freedom of information request into the move does not provide many new details on council's decision-making process.
District 4 Coun. Steve Gillespie said he supports the final choice, but admitted the municipality could have been more open about how it made its decision.
"In my opinion, it is the best one," he said. "But just sometimes we, as a municipality, don't communicate our messages the best way we can."
The freedom of information request returned only two short email threads.
One was simply a request from District 12 Coun. Jim MacLeod to have the fire station put on the agenda of a workshop in June.
The other involved Gillespie, who expressed concerns to a constituent about the municipality's lack of public consultation on the decision.
In February, council voted unanimously to move the fire station to municipal property on the corner of Pitt and George streets from the Esplanade.
Some residents and local businesses were not happy with council's decision, saying it would affect the nearby theatre, reduce parking downtown and tie up local traffic.
They were also upset over the lack of opportunity for public input into the decision.
Gillespie said there wasn't much communication about the topic ahead of time, possibly because there was pressure from the province to get construction going on the new Marconi campus of the Nova Scotia Community College.
'Terrible job of communicating'
Instead, councillors discussed the project in-camera in November and then again in February, when it came before open council.
"As far as I'm concerned, we just did a terrible job of communicating with our constituents and the public at large," said Gillespie.
"Unfortunately, it was all done after the fact and that is just something that we, as a municipality, have to work on."
The International Association of Fire Fighters, the union representing the municipality's career fire service, said it was in favour of the new property.
The union also considered the corner of George and Glenwood streets, but said that location would have been smaller, more difficult to access because of traffic, and would have cost more because CBRM would have to buy and consolidate several private properties.
Some people have suggested the municipality could have pushed the province to kick in more money to buy property elsewhere.
$4.75M a 'fair' deal, says CAO
Gillespie said that may have been possible, but councillors were not in on the negotiations and there was pressure to make a quick decision.
"Were we in the driver's seat? Yes," he said. "But this was an $80-million contract to build a state-of-the-art [community college] facility on the downtown waterfront in Sydney that brings 1,200 to 1,500 people into the downtown core.
"We weren't going to hold the province out for ransom."
CBRM's chief administrative officer, Marie Walsh, said the provincial government never once talked about using its power to expropriate the Esplanade property.
Instead, she said, the province negotiated fairly and agreed to give the municipality $4 million for the old fire station, plus $750,000 for the land.
"Of course, it started lower than what we ended up getting, but there was some back and forth and I think we both felt at the end of the day the amount was fair," she said.
Money will build a better station
Walsh said because CBRM already owned the new site, it was able to put the money for the land into building a better station that will be up to the latest building code and accessible.
"We were back and forth on drawings and what we needed in the new space, so I really feel we got a fair value and they were excellent to negotiate with," she said.
Walsh said the lack of documentation around the decision to relocate the fire station is not unusual.
She said staff discussions between the fire service, its union and the planning department were mostly done face to face.
The topic did come up at a workshop in June, Walsh said, but that was not a council meeting, so there was no need to advertise it or publish minutes.
Informal meetings with councillors were common because of the pandemic, she added.
"With COVID, we were giving weekly updates, so we were not opening that up to the public," she said. "It was actually [staff] directors meetings that we were inviting council to attend."
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