SYDNEY — It didn’t take long for the former Holy Angels High School to fill with tenants after its closure three years ago.
About 18 months after the property was purchased by New Dawn Enterprises, the 12,700-square-metre school — now known as the Centre for Social Innovation, with a mix of 20 commercial and non-profit tenants — is fully leased.
And a recent future-use study concluded the operation will be sustainable, without the need for operational subsidies. As a result, development plans are shifting to the convent next door.
Erika Shea, New Dawn’s director of communications, said Monday no one expected the venture to be such a quick success.
“When New Dawn was purchasing the property, in some ways you could become a little overwhelmed with the quantity of space … and now we’re starting to worry that we might not have enough space,” she said.
The organization’s goal is to develop community connections and entrepreneurship at the former school, which was built in 1958, and to foster arts and culture in the former convent, while preserving its heritage character.
“There is a lot of interest in the convent. Some of the tenants that are in this building now fit more in that arts and culture paradigm, so we see that developing as a centre for arts and culture, a centre for the creative economy.”
The 12,000-square-metre convent, built in 1885, is currently empty, and requires major work to make it more energy efficient and to bring it up to current safety codes.
The “Cadillac” option will require about $6 million in renovations, and New Dawn is already looking for capital.
Shea said work on the convent should start relatively soon.
“Our hope would be to be well underway within a year’s time,” she said.
According to New Dawn’s vision, some parts of the former convent will remain open to the community. For example, the chapel, with its acoustics and sightlines, will likely become a performance space.
Dwindling membership in the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame forced the order to sell the one-hectare property, including the convent and the all-girls high school. The school closed in 2011 due to declining enrolment.
New Dawn is a private community development corporation that runs nursing homes, a career college and housing rentals, with more than 175 employees in Cape Breton.
The Centre for Social Innovation houses some commercial operations, including a photographer and an Internet video-streaming company, a yoga studio, a textile manufacturing business that sells its products at the Cape Breton Centre for Craft and Design, and a business school that teaches entrepreneurs how to start new high-tech companies.
Other tenants include the International Centre for English Academic Preparation, which runs some courses and offers other programming for spouses and relatives of international students at Cape Breton University, and an art group that opens its studio to the public for workshops and community events.
Community outreach is a big part of the Centre for Social Innovation, which was modelled after a similar venture in Toronto. It’s not just a commercial development that offers space for rent, and the tenants have taken that community aspect to heart.
“In terms of differentiating this project from something that is just landlord-tenant, like any other office building in Sydney, we’re making sure there’s space where the community feels really welcome,” said Shea.
“For its entire existence it was kind of a closed space unless you were a student or a sister here, so we’ve opened up this space. It’s an incredibly hopeful place to be day to day.”