Cape Breton University unveiled a bold COVID-19 recovery plan on Monday that will include the construction of an $80 million campus centre it hopes will spur university growth and a population rise around the island.
President David Dingwall said the proposed Centre for Discovery and Innovation is ’shovel-ready’ but will need significant financial contributions from the federal and provincial governments to add to pandemic impacted university fundraising efforts.
The proposed build comes just months after the university announced a loss in revenue of $16.6 million due to a large drop in enrolment during the pandemic.
“Why is it the right time?” Dingwall responded from the podium about the build. “COVID-19 will come to an end. This is a part of the recovery for the province. There’s never a right time or a bad time. We wait six months; we wait a year or two years. I say 'no. Let’s be bold now.'”
According to the university, the proposed 80,000 square-foot centre will be built between the Verschuren Centre and the Shannon School of Business on the campus. The Arseneau-Britten building will be demolished to account for 50,000 square feet of the space needed to build a modern research and instructional facility featuring cutting-edge design and clean technology.
State-of-the-art research and research training laboratories, with innovation space to facilitate industry partnerships, are among its other features.
The centre will also house the Marshall Institute which will focus on environmental justice and Indigenous approaches to climate change.
Kelsea MacNeil, president of the Cape Breton University Alumni Association, said alumni she’s spoken with are supportive of the new build. All have fond memories of their time at CBU and the education they received but acknowledged the need for something new.
“I recently spoke to a graduate from the Institute of Technology,” MacNeil said about one of the early forms of CBU. “He told me he does not want his children, who will be attending CBU in the coming years, to sit at the same labs and classes and use the same equipment as he did in the 1980s. But that’s the situation we are in.”
Dingwall said the proposed centre is now the No. 1 capital priority of the university, and its impacts will cascade beyond the CBU campus into communities across the island who will benefit economically, culturally and socially from the university’s ability to attract students from around the world.
In 2019, he noted that Cape Breton saw its first population increase in more than 20 years as a result of international student growth at CBU. As of January, those international students contributed $165 million per year to the island’s economy.
Cape Breton MLAs Derek Mombourquette and Geoff MacLellan have been briefed on the project, according to Dingwall, as have Cape Breton MPs Jaime Battiste and Mike Kelloway. None of the four were invited to Monday’s unveiling where Dingwall called upon all members of the community to reach out to these elected representatives to emphasize the importance of the new centre.
“They know where the pockets of money are,” Dingwall said. “I certainly know where the pockets of money are and we want to work together in terms of trying to achieve that particular objective. I think they are good people; they are good citizens and I think they understand the significance of this project, both short term and most importantly for the long term.”
Among those in attendance on Monday was former Premier Rodney MacDonald who is now chief executive officer of the Gaelic College.
“On a personal level, not only through the college, but I want to see Cape Breton thrive and grow and I know this centre and Cape Breton University are integral to the future of the island,” MacDonald said. “Population-wise, academically-wise, we need to be well-positioned and I fully support what the president is doing in this regard, and the university.”
The university’s impact on the economy and population growth speaks for itself, but whoever asks, MacDonald will advise them to get on board with the centre construction project.
Carla Arsenault, president of the Cape Breton Partnership, said there’s an advocacy role the partnership and the greater community can take to help the proposed CBU centre to become a reality.
“We know that in order to grow our economy, in order to grow the island, we need more people, we need to increase our population and CBU is doing just that,” Arsenault said. “They are bringing in newcomers from all around the world and if we want to continue to do that and continue to bring in students ... we need to make sure that they have the right infrastructure and tools available to them when they come. This new facility will be an incredible asset to not just Cape Breton University but to all of Cape Breton Island.”
In a statement, Kelloway, the Cape Breton-Canso MP, noted he was first introduced to the early stages of the centre project before he was elected as an MP.
“CBU has done a stellar job educating thousands in our community and beyond,” he wrote.
“We must build on that. That is why I’ve met with Mr. Dingwall on many occasions to discuss this project, among others, and arranged meetings with key people in Ottawa to share with them the hidden gem we have in CBU.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Kelloway's office, staff and constituents have worked to play a lead role in COVID-19 policies such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), the Fish Harvesters Grant and Benefit, he wrote, and are now working with the nonprofit and transportation sectors to ensure a ‘resilient’ COVID-19 recovery.
Kelloway looks forward to continuing his engagement on the CBU project, as well.
Requests for comment were issued to the three other elected representatives referenced in this article. Responses were not received prior to press time.
Greg McNeil is the business reporter at the Cape Breton Post.
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