Confluence Roadblock

backers seek way forward after budget decision

Tom Giffey, photos by Nick Meyer

HATS OFF TO THE CONFLUENCE. City Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle, right, organized a rally of women in support of the Confluence Project May 9.
HATS OFF TO THE CONFLUENCE. City Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle, right, organized a rally of women in support of the Confluence Project on Saturday, May 9.

If backers of the proposed Confluence Project in downtown Eau Claire want $15 million in state funding, it will be difficult to get in the next state budget. On May 7 the state Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee voted 12-4 to remove $15 million for the project that Gov. Scott Walker had written into the state’s 2015-17 spending plan.

“We’re trying to see our path forward, trying to see what other options are,” said Kimera Way, executive director of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation, one of the partners in the joint university-community performing arts center. That path may take a detour through the State Building Commission, which has oversight on borrowing for such capital projects.

“We’re trying to see our path forward, trying to see what other options are.” – Kimera Way, UW-Eau Claire Foundation, on the state Joint Finance Committee vote to reject $15 million for the Confluence Project

After the committee’s Republican majority voted to remove the Confluence funds from the state budget, committee Democrats proposed pursuing state bonds to fund the project instead. However, that idea was rejected as well, WisPolitics.com reported. Committee Republicans argued that the state’s limited resources should be prioritized toward K-12 education, not the Confluence Project (which itself has a significant educational component). A Legislative Fiscal Bureau report published the day before the committee’s vote projected that state revenue wouldn’t grow more than previously expected, meaning the state wouldn’t have additional funds to work with to plug budget holes.

“We’re disappointed on how the vote came out partisan after all this,” state Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, said a few hours after the vote. “This does not necessarily kill the project at this point, but it is disappointing. The budgetary process is not complete at all, but this is a setback.”

In contrast to the partisan committee vote, the Confluence Project has drawn support from Chippewa Valley lawmakers of both parties. State Rep. Warren Petryk, R-Eleva, noted that he was “disappointed” in the vote, particularly after the time spent lobbying other lawmakers about the project’s “economic impact, cultural value, and inherent tax dollar savings.” Petryk and other local lawmakers vowed to continue to advocate for the project. “We’ve just got to keep our chins up and keep going into the wind,” Wachs added.

One possible route is to seek funding through the state’s capital budget. That budget is recommended by the State Building Commission, which is chaired by Walker and whose vice chairman is state Sen. Terry Moulton, R-Chippewa Falls, also a Confluence supporter.

Way, of the UWEC Foundation, noted that Confluence backers originally had pushed to include funding for the project in the capital budget. Later, Walker suggested a different funding method, known as a non-state agency grant, before deciding to pay for the project with general-purpose state revenue. While the latter route is now apparently closed off, the other two are still possible. “In the big picture, $15 million in the whole budget is miniscule,” Way said.

The proposed performing arts center is slated to be built along Graham Avenue in downtown Eau Claire with a mixture of philanthropic, state, county, and city funds. Originally, backers had sought $25 million from the state, but they scaled down their plans after Walker offered $15 million in his budget proposal earlier this year. Currently plans call for a roughly $40 million performing arts center, but local funding is contingent on the state contribution.

The committee’s vote drew quick mixed reaction locally. Voters With Facts, a local group that has opposed the Confluence Project and other downtown initiatives, issued a brief statement noting that “The vote was decisive and speaks for itself. Volunteers with Voters with Facts applaud the Committee’s decision to use the funds to support K-12 education.” Meanwhile, supporters such as City Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle expressed dismay at the vote – and optimism that it wasn’t the final word. “I am resolved to see this project through,” Emmanuelle wrote on Facebook. “Our economic health and social revitalization depends on the anchor of the Confluence Project in its entirety. We’ve come so far, I for one am not giving up or going backwards.”

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