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THE CONFLUENCE PROJECT WINS BIG

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by Tom Giffey

With two victories under their belt in the April 1 election, supporters of the Confluence Project are now preparing to take their message of community support for the ambitious endeavor to policymakers in Madison.

Buoyed by backing from voters – who handily defeated a city referendum designed to thwart the project while also backing a county referendum pledging $3.5 million toward it – those involved now say they have momentum in an upcoming effort to get state funding for UW-Eau Claire’s share of the proposed performing arts center. They also hope electoral success encourages more donors to open their wallets to meet the Confluence Project’s goal of $15 million in philanthropy.

“Now it’s time for the grassroots support we’ve had for the election to translate into grassroots support for donations,” said Ben Richgruber, executive director of the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center, one of three major partners in the project – the others being the university and Commonweal Development. Currently, a bit over $5 million toward the $15 million goal has been pledged, but Richgruber is confident more businesses and individuals soon will be getting out their checkbooks.

Preliminary results indicated the county referendum passed by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent, while the city measure failed 59 percent to 41 percent.

And while supporters cheered their victory, they know they will now be making up for lost time. “This has really been a logjam,” Richgruber said of the three-month campaign to oppose the city referendum and support the county one. “When this became a political process, a lot of the other work on the Confluence halted.” 

The work ahead includes asking the UW System Board of Regents to commit $25 million toward the $50 million performing arts center, which would be built at the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers in downtown Eau Claire. (The project also will include a privately funded multiuse building worth at least $21.5 million, which would include commercial space and student housing.) The Regents will act on their 2015-17 state budget request in August. The request will then be considered by the governor as part of the state budget early next year, and ultimately by the state Legislature, which typically passes the two-year budget in June. 

“UW-Eau Claire appreciates the engagement of the public and respects the decision of the voters,” UWEC Chancellor James Schmidt said in an election night statement. “The results demonstrate our fellow citizens agree the Confluence Project represents a new way of government institutions and private enterprise working together to create something that no single entity could create alone: a first-class arts center that will greatly benefit the community and the university alike.

“We will now turn our attention to finalizing agreements to secure city and county funding for the community arts center,” he continued. “This overwhelming endorsement also should provide a clear indication to our partners in Madison that the community supports this project and the public-private partnership model necessary to achieve it.”

Roughly 100 supporters and media members gathered for an election night party at the Volume One Gallery. While they waited for election returns, Confluence backers were encouraged to write messages about the project aimed at decision-makers in Madison. Among those declarations of support: “We have done our part. Now it’s your turn.” 

Other necessary steps for the project include finalizing an agreement between the city and Commonweal Development, which will build the multi-use facility. “People think this an end-all, and it’s not,” said Dan Clumpner of Commonweal Development, of the April 1 vote. Many pieces still need to fall into place before ground can be broken for the project. “All this is is a license to continue the process,” he said of the Confluence victories. “We have to proceed with a lot more due diligence and then enter into discussions both with city and state to finalize agreements.” However, he added, the indication of public support will undoubtedly help in Madison.

“It certainly gives us momentum in talking to the Board of Regents and (Gov. Scott Walker) administration and legislators,” Clumpner said.

The election was the culmination of series of events that began last fall, roughly a year and a half after the Confluence Project was first unveiled. The county referendum was straightforward: It asked voters to affirm a $3.5 million pledge toward the performing arts center made by the County Board in January. By contrast, the city referendum was more complicated. Because the City Council had already voted in October to commit $5 million in tax incremental financing toward the performing arts center, Confluence skeptics had to get creative to push a referendum to halt the project. In late December, the Citizens Referendum Committee submitted nearly 5,000 signatures on a petition to get a referendum question on the April 1 ballot. Instead of asking directly about the Confluence Project, however, the petition asked to change city law to require another referendum anytime the city sought to spend $1 million or more on a building for “dramatic, musical, or artistic performances”? A “yes” vote would have led to a second referendum – this one directly aimed at thwarting the $5 million pledge – while a “no” vote would prevent the proposal from becoming part of city ordinances.

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