CBRM Council: Library News

I was debating just launching into my CBRM council coverage a week late without explanation but decided that would be the coward’s way out so instead, I will confess that I missed the memo about the January 31 meeting.

In my defence, the last Tuesday in January is not the usual time for a regional council meeting, nor is 9:30 in the morning the usual time, but that said, I received an email about it and I should have seen it and I didn’t, so file that under: Reporter—Very Bad.

CBRM Council Chambers, 2017. (Photo by WayeMason [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons)

CBRM Council Chambers, 2017. (Photo by WayeMason CC BY-SA 4.0  from Wikimedia Commons)

On the other hand, being a week late has its advantages: I am usually pressed to turn around stories from a Tuesday night meeting for my Wednesday deadline and I rarely have access to the recording of the meeting, which is generally not posted until a few days later. Nor do I have access to the voting record, other than knowing whether a motion passed or was defeated. So I watched the January 31 meeting at my leisure, pausing frequently to rewind and listen to bits again to be sure I was understanding correctly, and I checked the actual numbers on the vote at the end.

Late council coverage is also, you have to admit, very on brand for a publication that prides itself on being “last to breaking news.”

So without further delay, here’s one of the stories I was very interested to see arise out of that January 31 meeting from which two councilors were missing: District 7 Councilor Steve Parsons, who sent his regrets, and District 10 Darren Bruckschweiger whose extended leave on medical grounds was approved by council during that same meeting.


The Old Courthouse

Item 5.1 a) on the January 31 agenda was a throwback to an item on the 13 September 2022 agenda, which I covered here. and which related to the location of a new central Cape Breton Regional Library (CBRL).

Back in September, Mayor Amanda McDougall-Merrill:

…explained that the old Cape Breton County Courthouse in Sydney’s Wentworth Park (otherwise known as 70 Crescent Street) ha[d] been evaluated by McKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects of Halifax (the firm behind Truro’s new library, the new Charlottetown library and CBU’s Tartan Downs project) who ha[d] confirmed that the Courthouse “[wa]s, in fact, a viable and suitable option to be considered for a public library and there is opportunity to increase [the] square footage of the site.”

Moreover, the CBRM has also received “positive feedback” from the Kwilmu’kw Maw-Klusuaqn Negotiation Office, advising that:

…a motion from the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs (ANSMC) was passed, releasing their interest in this property and offering the support of Eskasoni and Membertou to work in partnership with CBRM on a new library.

The Mayor asked Council to approve a motion instructing the CBRM’s community outreach officer to undertake a month-long public consultation to determine next steps.

At the time, the Mayor said she wanted to put two options before CBRM citizens—renovating the old Courthouse or renovating the McConnell Library—while allowing people to offer additional suggestions of their own.

A photo of the old Cape Breton County Courthouse in Wentworth Park, Sydney, NS

The former Cape Breton County Courthouse.

Mike Targett is CBRM’s community outreach officer, and he began his January 31 presentation by explaining that public consultation on the new library location would be premature, given how many questions about the Courthouse have yet to be answered.

He broke his remarks into three sections:

  1. What we know (a summary of existing reports, studies and public engagement)
  2. What we don’t know (about the Courthouse)
  3. How we get from where we are now to “hopefully cutting the ribbon on a new central library” in 2025

I’m going to report on these sections in the order they were presented because, why not?


What we know

Targett began by summarizing CBRM council’s efforts, to date, to build a new central library and what this section accomplished (I think) was dismissing, once and for all, the notion that the existing library can be renovated.

Targett noted that the need for a new central facility was first identified in an internal 2007 CBRL memo entitled, “Needs Assessment and Master Facilities Plan” that rejected the possibility of renovating the McConnell. In 2012, an Architectural and Facility Planning Report commissioned by the CBRM also advised against renovating the McConnell. In February 2016, a Feasibility Study, also commissioned by the municipality, came to the same conclusion as did a 2021 Service, Programs and Operational Plan.

Mike Targett (Source: Video from 31 January 2023 CBRM council meeting)

Targett told councilors that in terms of public consultation, it was time to decide whether renovating and expanding the McConnell is “actually a viable and realistic option…and if not, why should the public give it any serious consideration?”

Targett argued that another thing we know about the new library is what the public expects from it:

…not surprisingly, after years of consultation and research and evolving best practices and just, you know, seeing what they’ve done in other communities…[t]here’s just a general consensus around what people expect from a modern, contemporary, culturally outstanding, sustainable and energy-efficient new central library.

This includes a list of amenities that goes well beyond books, including recording studios, technology-equipped work stations, an auditorium and a café. The public is also clear it wants a facility that will continue to serve the most marginalized members of our community, possibly even accommodating an on-site social worker.


What we don’t know

Back in September when she first introduced the idea, Mayor McDougall-Merrill said the Courthouse had been offered to the  municipality by the federal government, which will be moving its offices into a new building in 2025. (The question of whether this move could be expedited arose during the discussion and the Mayor said the feds had indicated that it could.)

At 33,000 square feet, the Courthouse is bigger than the 22,000-square-foot McConnell but smaller than the 45,000-square-foot facility recommended by the 2021 report and endorsed by the Library Board. The 2021 recommendation was considerably larger than the February 2016 recommendation for a 36,000-square-foot library, the reason being Nova Scotia’s Accessibility Act, which came into force in November 2016. Accessibility—including questions of shelf height and spacing, entry points, elevators, work stations and washrooms—wasn’t considered when calculating the initial library dimensions.

(I was curious to know what sort of accessibility standards and regulations libraries will have to meet so did a little googling and have included my findings in a postscript at the end of this article.)

To function as the new central library, the Courthouse would require expansion, and Targett says we don’t yet know whether the building is structurally sound enough to withstand that or how much such an expansion would cost.

It was noted that when councilors and library staff toured the building, library staff had concerns about the Courthouse’s current layout—it is “chopped up” into small rooms that wouldn’t make sense in a modern, accessible library. The project would likely require gutting the building (that actually didn’t surprise me, I had assumed the renovations necessary to turn a courthouse into a library would be extensive).

CBRM IT manager and deputy CAO John MacKinnon joined the discussion to explain that they had received an estimate of $35,000 from an engineering firm to evaluate the Courthouse but required council permission to proceed. Council (eventually) did vote to proceed with the evaluation. (All except District 12 councilor Lorne Green who voted against the motion but kept his thoughts on the matter to himself).

MacKinnon told council the aim was to have the estimate in hand before the February 28 deadline for federal project funding (see next item).

(The question that occurred to me was, why didn’t we do this last October? We could already have the answers about the Courthouse instead of rushing to get them within the next three weeks. But that question was neither asked nor answered.)

Record of vote from 31 January 2023 CBRM council meeting

Source: CBRM council minutes


The way forward

Targett presented council with an ambitious timeline that would see the new central library open in 2025. (I would love to be proved wrong, but I find that very hard to imagine.)

The first step is to apply for funding under the federal government’s Green and Inclusive Community Buildings Program (GICB), the deadline for which is February 28.

The program funds both retrofits of existing buildings and new builds, but if the retrofit involves expanding an existing building by more than 30%, it’s considered a new build, so presumably taking the Courthouse from 33,000 to 45,000 square feet (an increase of 12,000 square feet or 36%) would be considered a new build.

Targett said if you take the 2016 cost estimates for a new build or a retrofit and add 20% to account for inflation, you get a price tag ranging from $24 to $36 million. The average is $30 million, so based on a 1/3 funding formula, the CBRM’s obligation would be about $10 million.

Here’s what Wayne MacDonald, CBRM’s head of Engineering and Public Works had to say about funding:

The piece missing in this file and it’s been missing for many years is, there’s no funding. The funding has to be approved, otherwise you don’t get through detailed design. All you can do at this point is conceptual. There’s been a number of studies a lot of those had funding associated with them and we tried, over a number of years, to get pointed towards the proper direction. But the last application that went in was for a waterfront library that was approved by council a few years ago, we were turned down, that was the first round of Green Inclusive Buildings, now we have [the] Green and Inclusive Community Buildings fund which just opened. So this is the next round of funding. Many, many projects in Canada were turned down for that first call, Centre 200 was another project turned down we had, I think, three applications in, all three were turned down. There was, I believe, $300 million available and $16 billion of applications. So, this will continue until we have a fund but I guess in the meantime, the group needs some initial approval from council to do some conceptual-type work, which answers a few, simple questions and then the application will get in to the federal government. From that, you will do your real, your detailed designs at that point.

The GIBC budget is $1.5 billion over five years or $300 million per year, as MacDonald noted.

So, the  first step in this timeline is to apply for federal funding and hope that, this time, we get it.


Operating costs

From there, the process looks like this:


Chart showing timeline for development of CBRM central library

Source: CBRM meeting agenda 2023.01.31

Targett said council should budget for the library during its March budget talks, then strike a Library Oversight Committee (described as the Library Finance Committee above) which would look into options for funding operations and  “play a role” in the design/build phase. This committee is to include representatives of CBRM council, library staff, the Library Board and the general public.

Operating costs for the new facility are estimated at up to $240,000 per year, depending on how energy efficient the building is.  But Targett made a point that I don’t think can be stressed enough when discussing this figure, which is that the reason it seems so high is that current operating costs for the McConnell—which is both the Sydney branch of the CBRL and the headquarters for the entire regional library system—are so low. The 2021 operations report explained that the McConnell costs only $83,025 per year to operate and $74,300 of that is offset in the form of rent paid by the CBRL to the CBRM for the space used to accommodate the regional HQ. Which means it costs the CBRM $8,725 a year to operate the McConnell Library.

As Targett said, the increase should be viewed as bringing library expenses up to the level where they would be if we hadn’t kept them “artificially low” by operating an under-sized building.

This timeline calls for the CBRM to issue an RFP for proposals using the following criteria:

A chart showing criteria for a Request for Proposals for a new CBRM Central LibraryYou’ll notice the RFP allows proponents to “consider the Courthouse as a potential site or propose other CBRM-owned land/assets” and to submit more than one proposal “E.g., one proposal to construct a new building and a second to renovate or expand the courthouse building.” (By the time the RFP is issued, we will know what the engineers have said about the Courthouse.)

If this plan were to proceed as written, we’d have public input into the proposals, then Council would vote and a contract would be awarded this October with construction taking place over 2024 and the library opening in 2025. (By way of comparison, construction of the 300,000 square-foot waterfront campus of the NSCC in Sydney began in June 2022 and is expected to be completed by July 2024.)


Talk amongst yourselves

District 5 Councilor Eldon MacDonald, chair of the Cape Breton Regional Library Board (and an enthusiastic supporter of Harbour Royale Development Ltd’s plan to put the library on the Sydney waterfront) seemed oddly sour on the subject of the Courthouse, noting that he “hadn’t been thrilled” with the presentation to council by Halifax architect Talbot Sweetapple, who had said the 33,000-square-foot building would make a “beautiful library” without, apparently, realizing we required 45,000 square feet. (In Sweetapple’s defense, I have to think it was up to somebody in CBRM to tell him those requirements, but communication has never been a municipal strong suit.)

District 4 Councilor Steve Gillespie, on the other hand, said the location of the Courthouse was “fantastic,” especially given that one of the few things council has decided about the library is that it should be in downtown Sydney. (Mind you, District 1 Councilor Gordon MacDonald managed to put even that into play, suggesting that if the Courthouse proves unsuitable, the search should be expanded to the entire CBRM. Brace yourself for the suggestion the new library be located on the highway between Sydney and Glace Bay.)

Me, I have already owned up to a bias in favor of the Courthouse, but I’ll be the first to admit, I have no idea whether it is actually fit for purpose and will bow to the judgement of the engineers and library staff. What matters, after 14 long years, is that we build a new library and councilors generally seemed to agree on the need to expedite this matter.

As noted above, they voted to move ahead with the structural analysis of the Courthouse.

Whether they can cobble together a GICB application by February 28 is the cliffhanger on which this article must end.



As noted, I did a little research into the status of the Nova Scotia Accessibility Act and discovered that both the associated standards and the plan for their implementation are still being worked out by the province’s Accessibility Advisory Board (AAB), first appointed in 2018.

In the case of the Built Environment standards, they are, according to the minutes from the most recent AAB meeting, currently being finalized through the Interdepartmental Working Group” which will draft an implementation plan outlining “how the standard applies to certain entities and when, including the compliance, education and awareness required.” The final drafts of the standards and the implementation plan will go to the Minister of Justice at some unspecified time in 2023.

My reading of the AAB’s Phase 2 recommendations is that they would apply chiefly to new builds and renovations. As for existing libraries, the AAB recommends that:

Libraries will include visual fire alarms placed where they can be viewed from all areas of the library. They will also have a clear path of travel between shelving.

Accessible seating will be provided in multiple places throughout the library. Accessible computer stations will be available

Schools and libraries will include rest and relief areas for service animals.

In February 2022, Nova Scotia Public Libraries released a Joint Accessibility Framework stating that:

Nova Scotia’s Public Libraries are fully committed to developing multi-year accessibility plans, establishing accessibility advisory committees, and complying with the accessibility standards that public sector bodies must follow.

One detail I noticed in the AAB’s 2020 Recommendations to the Government of Nova Scotia on Accessibility Standards in the Built Environment is that “financial incentives,” potentially including “grants, tax rebates and other measures” may be offered to encourage compliance with the standards.

We have lots of local resources on this subject, though—CBRL regional librarian Lisa Mulak, in her role as chair of the Council of Regional Librarians, was involved in drafting the public libraries’ framework while the CBRM’s Paul Burt and New Dawn’s Douglas Foster were both members of the original AAB appointed in 2018.