Director of Saint John Theatre Company 'humbled' by city support for courthouse project

·3 min read
This is what the new addition could look like on the King Street East side of the old Sydney Street courthouse.  (Submitted by the Saint John Theatre Company - image credit)
This is what the new addition could look like on the King Street East side of the old Sydney Street courthouse. (Submitted by the Saint John Theatre Company - image credit)

The City of Saint John has agreed to provide funding of more than $800,000 to help turn the former Sydney Street Courthouse into a theatre venue.

It's a substantial donation that comes from two separate reserve funds, although nearly half the money will be paid in four yearly instalments.

Saint John city council approved the deal with the Saint John Theatre Company this week.

The company purchased the old courthouse in 2020, after it had sat empty for seven years.

Pat Richard/CBC
Pat Richard/CBC

It has an ambitious plan to turn the nearly 200-year-old building into a performing arts venue with a price tag estimated at $20 million.

The city will provide $418,000 from the Discover Saint John reserve fund, the city's tourism program.

Another $400,000 will be paid out in four equal yearly instalments from the city's general operating reserve fund.

For Stephen Tobias, the director of the theatre company, the funding approval is the culmination of a lot of hard work.

"I think we had our first conversations with the municipality about the possibility of support maybe five years ago," Tobias said.

"You know, this has been an ongoing dialogue for several years which led to a formal request that we would have made, a process that we would have started last September or October and over the course of the last year, there have been just a range of discussions with city staff."

Submitted by the Saint John Theatre Company
Submitted by the Saint John Theatre Company

The funding comes with conditions from the city.

The Saint John Theatre Company has to spend the money only on the Sydney Street courthouse project.

It has to provide evidence of paid invoices to the city, and city staff have to approve its business plan.

It must also launch a public fundraising campaign and secure funding for the exterior.

The city also maintains the right to perform a financial audit, will receive annual reports from the theatre company, and the design cannot be changed without notifying the city.

City manager John Collin said these conditions are not unusual in a funding agreement.

"All the recommendations that you see up there are perfectly normal for the sort of funding agreements we enter into when we provide these amounts of money to external agencies," he told council.

Tobias said he's grateful for the support but said he's very aware of what the funding means for the company.

"You know, on Tuesday morning, I had people on the team saying to me,  you know, 'Why aren't you high-fiving? You're not as buoyant as we thought you'd be.' And my answer was because this creates a whole range of responsibilities that we now have to live up to," he said.

"This isn't a gift. This is a partnership."

Tobias said the city coming on board with a large sum of money will help secure funding from other sources.

Submitted by the Saint John Theatre Company
Submitted by the Saint John Theatre Company

"You know, there are a range of activities that we have — I wouldn't say we put them on hold, but we have not aggressively pursued — because having the city on board for a project like this to a range of stakeholders, that's something that they look for in order to assess: Is this project valuable to the community? Does the community care about this project?

"And one of the big signs of that is, Is the municipality as an entity supportive of this project? Because they understand that mayor and council are accountable to the community and they tend to support the things that they know that the community is supporting."

Tobias said one of the next steps will be to launch a public fundraising campaign, but he said it's too early to release details of that yet.

"I will say we had hoped at one point that we would have been launching a public campaign this year," he said.

"We're still reeling from the delays and disruptions of the last two-and-a-half years of COVID, but certainly, you know, we want to launch a public campaign as quickly as we possibly can."