NO PAIN, NO LANE. The Eau Claire City Council has approved the final funds needed to construct the Chippewa Tube Lane. However, a local citizen action group questions the legality of the decision. Above: A conceptual rendering by SPF Aquatects. Take a closer look.
At Tuesday night’s legislative meeting the Eau Claire City Council voted 7 to 3 in favor of the $1.7 million Chippewa Tube Lane project, approving the final $500,000 in funds needed to begin construction. Another $500,000 will come from UW-Eau Claire, and an additional $700,000 will come from a matching grant provided by the Federal Waterways and Buoys Commission.
Supporters hope to immediately open developer bidding so construction on the much-anticipated addition to the Chippewa River can begin as soon as late May.
But local tubers excited by the project might hit a few snags along the way. A citizen group calling itself “Boaters With Facts” is already demanding the city reverse its funding decision.
First proposed more than two years ago, the Chippewa Tube Lane would be a safe, fun, tube-only zone along the east bank of the Chippewa River for its entire course throughout the city. It would also provide the aqua-infrastructure needed to add an adjoining tube lane to the Eau Claire River in the future, stretching all the way back to a new launch point in Altoona’s River Prairie development.
At Monday’s public hearing on the project, supporters said the dedicated tube lane will help turn Eau Claire into a world-class tube town. It will also create a “boat calming effect,” reminding boaters that tubers share our waterways. Councilman Andrew Worthmen believes tube lanes encourage tubers to float in the correct direction.
Construction of the Chippewa Tube Lane will involve the removal of historic lumbering pylons scattered along the Chippewa River’s banks. Once demolition is complete, workers will install signage and a miles-long floating safety rope, clearly marking where boisterous tubing is allowed.
A feasibility study by Minnesota’s TubeWorks includes data on potential usage, saying the tube lane would be well-used, mostly by UW-Eau Claire and Chippewa Valley Technical College students, making up 48% of the expected floaters, with visiting tubers at 37%, townies at 11%, and at 4%, ducks.
Potential student use is why UW-Eau Claire is partnering with the city to pay for the tubeway, but some citizens question the public/private alliance. At the public hearing, one opponent told City Council, “UWEC already has its Little Niagara creek right on campus. Why would students walk all the way to the river to use [the new tube lane]?”
Early Wednesday morning, UWEC Chancellor James Schmitz took a break from organizing a University of Wisconsin System-wide bake sale to respond, saying, “Little Niagara is a vastly inadequate waterway. It’s very small, and it’s leaking all over the place. It was never designed to support that much fun and relaxation.”
Trouble Comes to Tube Town
Mere minutes after Tuesday’s vote, Boaters With Facts released a statement sharply criticizing the Chippewa Tube Lane, calling it a gross misuse of taxpayer money, and questioning the legality of city funding for a tubing super-fun zone. They say boaters and their rights should come first, not “these trendy inflatables.”
The group hopes to get a binding “riverendum” onto April 7’s ballot, barring the city from funding anything “remotely fun, exciting, or worth celebrating” on or near Eau Claire’s waterways in excess of $499,999 without a (second, even more confusing) riverendum allowing taxpayers to decide on project funding. If passed, such a measure would delay construction on the project until a public vote could be held in November.
“I can’t believe how fast they’ve mobilized. It’s like they were just sitting around, waiting to oppose something.” – Eau Claire City Council President Kerri Kancaid on the newly formed citizen group Boaters With Facts
“I can’t believe how fast they’ve mobilized,” said City Council President Kerri Kancaid. “It’s like they were just sitting around, waiting to oppose something.”
The Boaters With Facts press release includes a statement from Mary Jane Cohan, CEO of Eau Claire’s Prasto Companies (maker of the pizzaBOOM Frozen Pizza Sizzler). Cohan states, “The boaters and their rights are what are important here. If this bloated, boatless boondoggle is such a great idea, why hasn’t the private inflatable sector stepped up to pay for it?”
On Tuesday, Veronica Lewis, one of three City Council members to vote against the tube lane funding, said, “We as City Council cannot spend tax money and reshape our riverscape all willy nilly. Hundreds of years ago, Half Moon Lake was part of the Chippewa River. Then, as the river route shifted, it became separate – an oxbow lake. And nobody even bothered to ask the taxpayers about it.”
Lawyers representing Boaters With Facts have put the city on notice of its clients’ general distaste for lazy, recreational floating. In response, Eau Claire City Attorney Nick Steve said, “I honestly don’t know what that even means.”
In a lengthy string of online comments against a variety of things, Boaters With Facts volunteer Cindy Blurtin slammed the project, saying, “Bottom line, I’m not even sure I like rivers. I mean, they’re situated squarely in a floodplain. How dumb is that?”