Council approves $3 million for Sheet Harbour recreation centre

By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
May 20 2020

SHEET HARBOUR – Despite some of the leanest times for public spending in recent memory, Halifax Regional Municipality has allocated $3 million from its hard-working capital budget for a new recreation centre in Sheet Harbour.

The recommendation, which passed unanimously at last Tuesday’s council meeting, calls for a 21,000 square-foot, multi-use facility incorporating a fitness complex, community hall, library and fire station to replace the HRM’s aging and derelict Sheet Harbour Community Center, managed by the Lions Club.

The funding formula stipulates $600,000 in 2020/21 for approximately 22 acres of provincial Crown land next to the West River, and for “due diligence and consulting fees” and $2.4 million in 2021/22 for the building, itself. It also directs city staff to apply to both the province and the Canada Infrastructure Program to help cover the remaining costs of the estimated $12-million project.

“I believe we’ve passed the municipal hurdle and put the application forward to the province and then to the feds,” said David Hendsbee, HRM councillor for Preston-Chezzetcook-Eastern Shore, who has supported the plan since it appeared on the city’s radar nearly four years ago.

“This is a great opportunity for the rural regions of Halifax, especially for the Eastern Shore. We know there have been difficulties in small communities, where there’ve been a lot of closures of community assets, where even church halls have been shutting down. We see this as chance to add some vibrancy, to have a community where people can stay and work and live.”

Tom McInnis, a key figure behind the Eastern Shore Lifestyles Centre Society (ESLCS), a community group established in 2017 to promote the project, concurs. “Here’s a good project, a useful project and it’s a project that’s required,” the former Canadian senator and president of the Sheet Harbour Chamber of Commerce and Civic Affairs said.

“Essentially our community centre had been condemned. What I suggested is that we not just go with a new roof for the old building, but that we actually go to a greenfield and a new site with a new building and get other tenants. . .I’m pretty optimistic this will go forward to the next phase.”

Several questions, however, remain. According to a background report prepared by HRM Chief Administrative Officer Jacques Dube, the appraised value of the Crown lands in question “may be in the range of $100,000 to $130,000.” There’s also potential consideration of “past industrial uses and contamination; former mine shafts; onsite sanitary and storm water management systems” and “requirements for riparian boundaries due to the proximity to the ocean and watercourse.” The ESLCS had earlier excluded the southern portion of the lands on the falls’ west side, which is the site of Mi’kmaw burial grounds.

Beyond this, the issue of new public spending at a time when COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on public accounts will likely loom for some time. HRM recently announced a whopping $44 million budgetary shortfall for the coming year. “This has been an incredibly challenging time,” Dube told councillors at a special online meeting last week. “I don’t think any of us has experienced something like this.”

Still, said McInnis, “There’s no textbook you can read that will tell you what to do when a COVID comes along. There’s no program, but if we’re ever going to get out of this, we’re going to have to restart our economies.”

Hendsbee added, “If we want to restart the economy in a rural area, this recreation facility in Sheet Harbour would be a game changer.”