Minister Mombourquette on Centre 200, Library

I have a suspicious mind — it pretty much goes with the territory, when you’re a journalist — so when I heard about this “court facility” expansion proposed for Centre 200, my immediate thought was that somewhere in the background was a plan to bring professional basketball back to Cape Breton. (Cape Breton’s National Basketball League of Canada franchise, the Cape Breton Highlanders, is currently “on hiatus” from the league.)

Instead of just speculating, though, I decided to ask Sydney Whitney-Pier MLA (and Education and Early Childhood Development Minister) Derek Mombourquette, a proponent of the court facility, if it was in any way connected to professional basketball and Mombourquette, whom I spoke to by phone yesterday, answered quite emphatically that it was not:

No, none of those conversations have happened, really Centre 200 has been all about amateur sport in the community…The conversation started a few years ago because Bicentennial was being used for basketball which, as you’re aware, is the old hockey rink in Sydney. So, a lot of great volunteers have been involved with Basketball Cape Breton and Volleyball Cape Breton and some seniors advocates within the community [were] looking for some space, so that’s really where this conversation came from, it has nothing to do with professional basketball, this is all about trying to support these great programs in the communities.

When I asked if the proposed facility would be suitable for a professional team, Mombourquette said:

I haven’t really thought about it from a professional basketball perspective, so they’re going through the design right now…We know that in the past there’s been two professional teams here that have used Centre 200, so this facility, particularly though, would be more geared towards community sport, amateur sport, ensuring that this is a home base for the Basketball Cape Breton, Volleyball, we know there’s lots of seniors sports that are played within the community that are looking for space. It’s really more geared toward community than anything else. But again…they’re going through the design piece now, so once we determine what that design looks like then we’ll go from there.

So my suspicions appear to be unfounded — the planned addition is for community use and will (presumably) not be equipped to handle a pro basketball-sized audience. And Irwin Simon, majority owner of the Cape Breton Eagles and co-owner of the St. John’s Edge basketball team, has not been involved in discussions around the expansion (I asked).

That said, I will be interested to see what the actual design looks like. The specs mentioned in the Issue Paper on the project seem rather, shall we say, preliminary:

excerpt from CBRM Issue Paper

Unless, of course, we actually do intend to build a 47 million square foot extension onto Centre 200 and make our community sports center the world’s biggest building.

 

Upgrades

Even if professional basketball isn’t part of the plan, I think it’s fair to say the Centre 200 project will benefit Irwin Simon. Because it’s not just about expansion — when CBRM Engineering & Public Works Director Wayne MacDonald included it in the list of projects that could, potentially, receive funding under the federal government’s Green and Inclusive Community Buildings fund, he said staff would identify “which upgrades qualify from a current list of upgrades and add them to a proposed building expansion.”

Simon has been pushing for “upgrades” to Centre 200 since he bought a majority stake in the Eagles in 2018. Here’s a highlights reel:

In November 2019, Simon told the CBC’s Steve Sutherland:

I’m working with the city in regards to things we can do to upgrade Centre 200. So there’s a lot happening in the background.

Owner Update with Irwin D. Simon (CB Eagles)

Source: Cape Breton Eagles

A few months later, during a February 2020 “team update” that attracted roughly 160 citizens to Centre 200, Simon was even blunter:

We’re looking for a lot of money — whether it’s a clock, whether it’s boards, whether it’s glass, whether it’s a sound system, whether it’s the seats.

Who were they looking for money from? Do you even have to ask? As the Post explained at the time:

Simon said during Friday night’s game there were two MPs and two MLAs in attendance, along with CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke, the commissioner of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and six NHL scouts…

Simon said he spent more than an hour after Friday’s game bending the ear of government officials and met again with Clarke on Saturday morning.

Simon (who donated $10,000 to Clarke’s unsuccessful re-election campaign in 2020) also said, apparently with a straight face:

Nobody is going to put their name on it, whether it’s TD centre, whether it’s Rogers centre, right now with the condition this place is in. I wouldn’t ask them to do it unless there’s a commitment from our government.

Got that? Unless the public is willing to spend “a lot of money” on Centre 200, no private company is going to agree to spend a fraction of that amount to plaster its name all over it. (As I said at the time, Simon seems to have a habit of saying the quiet part out loud.)

In July 2020, having just finalized his purchase of the Cambridge Suites Hotel in Sydney, he told the Post‘s Jeremy Fraser:

I think the big thing now is working with the municipality, working with the province and federal government to get dollars to fix Centre 200 up. It’s a great facility that hasn’t been touched in many years and there’s dollars there — it’s a facility that has to be utilized.

Oh, and also:

Over the past year, Simon has been rumoured to be interested in purchasing Centre 200 from the Cape Breton Regional Municipality. He didn’t deny the rumours when asked Wednesday.

“If there was the right opportunity, yeah, because it’s a great facility and there’s a lot that can be done with it,” said Simon. “If you look at real estate, real estate assets have to be utilized 12 months a year.”

So, after the public has spent “a lot of money” upgrading the facility, Simon might be interested in taking it off our hands?

Presumably, the addition of a community sports facility to the building would preclude its sale to the owner of the Eagles, but will it stop us from selling the naming rights to a private company?

And is bringing a professional basketball team back to a revamped Centre 200 on the cards? That is, perhaps, the question I should have asked.

 

Make a decision

While I had the minister on the phone, I tried to get some clarity on the status of the library and Mombourquette basically repeated what he’d told the CBC’s Wendy Bergfeldt last week — that he has been involved in many conversations about the library (including “multiple” conversations with the proponent of the waterfront location); that he once served on the library board; that he’d helped secure funding for the library Service, Programs and Operational Plan received by council in January; and that it’s not an “either/or” situation with Centre 200 and the library.

The bottom line, he said, is that the CBRM has to “make a decision” about the library, by which he means: commit to a location and a design.

Harbour Royale Development Ltd's Sydney waterfront plan.

Harbour Royale Development Ltd’s Sydney waterfront plan. Note casino located in expanded Holiday Inn.

He’s got a point. The CBRM has never gone through a proper site evaluation process for the library — Harbour Royale Development Ltd pre-empted this by lumping the library into its 2018 waterfront development scheme (and council, it must be said, let them). We don’t have a design either, although we have lots of computer-generated images of oval-shaped buildings.

But Mombourquette also told Bergfeldt he’d been actively working on the Centre 200 project for years, whereas he’s been “following” the library discussion and I thought that distinction was telling.

When I asked if it indicated more of a commitment to the former than the latter, he disagreed, saying that he recognized both projects as important community infrastructure and that when the CBRM had a library project to put forward, he’d be there to “advocate” for it.

Still, looking at what has been accomplished since 2016 on the Centre 200 file compared to the way the municipality has been spinning its wheels on the library file, I have to think having a provincial cabinet minister championing a project — rather than simply following the discussion about it — makes a difference.

But I also agree with Dolores Campbell, who suggests this week that it’s time to “put our money where our mouth is” and start a building fund for the library. And I agree with Michelle Smith that we should be looking to the Antigonish rather than the Halifax model of library.

I would also suggest Team Library get some tips on advocating for a new facility from our local community sports groups and our multi-millionaire hockey franchise owners. They seem to know how it’s done.

 

Other voices

This week’s edition, you may have noticed, features more content from contributors than from yours truly. I’ve spent so much time editing and fact-checking and formatting other people’s thoughts this week that I haven’t really had time to collect my own.

That’s fine, though. I think Dolores Campbell and Michelle Smith and Rachel Haliburton and Paul Strome all have important and interesting things to say and I’m happy to sit back and let them talk.

But don’t worry, I will be back on Friday with some thoughts of my own.