Anger is growing in Fort McMurray after the Wood Buffalo regional council approved Keyano College's request to build a $16.8-million art gallery.
During budget deliberations in late November, councillors with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo approved the capital spending by a vote of 4-3.
The plan is to turn an under-utilized college gym into three art studios, add a ceramics lab and renovate the arts building to turn it into the gallery. The space would be used for Keyano programs and by the municipality.
The college has put forward about $80,000 toward the project so far, said president of the college Trent Keough.
And beyond that the college will provide its expertise, but no additional money. "We simply don't have a large capital fund we can put into this project," said Keough.
Some residents are upset over the decision, saying the money could have gone to better use, or that the college should have been responsible for more of the cost.
Adam Yuill started a petition urging councillors to reconsider the money.
"We need to make it clear to council that $16 million ... towards an art gallery is not of any interest to the majority of citizens in Fort McMurray," Yuill wrote on the website change.org.
More than 700 people signed the petition within 19 hours of Yuill posting it.
"Our city is struggling," said Jess Widera, a lifelong resident in Fort McMurray, who voiced her displeasure over the decision online.
"While fine arts and culture enrichment is fantastic, and I'm all on board for it, I don't think it needs to come at that sticker [price]."
Widera said she would have preferred to see a smaller portion of the budget used for an art gallery, and more funds directed to mental health support in the Wood Buffalo region.
She added that residents should be consulted before councillors make big decisions. "I only heard about this art gallery days before the council funding approval," she said.
Many people have commented on Facebook that they think the money could have been put to better use.
Mercy Jodoin wrote that the gallery is a "ridiculous waste of money when our counselling services are being shut down."
Coun. Mike Allen voted in favour of the gallery funding. He said some residents have questioned his decision, but he's defended it and will continue to do so.
Keyano College hasn't offered art programs for a number of years, and Allen said the gallery is an opportunity to bring them back.
"There's a long history of a vibrant arts community in Wood Buffalo and then the heart of that died when Keyano College previously made the decision to remove those programs," Allen said.
"I think it's important for us to note that the way this is coming across is that this is all about the money … It's much more than an art gallery."
Keough said if the building goes up, "we can expect to see more programs, absolutely guaranteed."
Many in the arts community have been excited about the prospect of a new gallery.
Florence Weber, owner of Points North Gallery, said she thinks the idea is "fabulous."
"I think it gives [young people] them the opportunity to broaden their vision … then you just grow," said Weber.
She said the community and families need balance — and that's what the gallery would bring.
"I think it's important to be exposed to all the different programs. We've got industry, we've got sports and we've got art. I think we have to be able to choose openly whoever one suits us best."
Keyano College currently has a small gallery, but Keough described it as a "cavern."
It isn't climate controlled and there's minimal security, meaning right now it's difficult to attract international artists to display their work. An international art gallery would change that.
"We need to actually have something that can house art in an appropriate way," he said.
There's currently no date set for the construction or opening of the gallery. Keough said the next phase is consulting with the public on what the facility will look like.
"We're going to do that process so people know what they're going to be getting for the $16.8 million."