A Vote of Confidence

Eau Claire City Council pledges $5 million to Confluence Project

Tom Giffey, photos by Nick Meyer

EAU CLAIRE SHOWS UP. During an Oct. 21 Eau Claire City Council public hearing on the Confluence Project, citizens packed the City Council Chamber (top) as well as an overflow room (lower left) and the City Hall lobby (lower right).
EAU CLAIRE SHOWS UP. During an Oct. 21 Eau Claire City Council public hearing on the Confluence Project, citizens packed the City Council Chamber (top) as well as an overflow room (lower left) and the City Hall lobby (lower right).

While the idea for the Confluence Project has been debated, promoted, altered, panned, and praised for more than a year and a half, it is has essentially remained just an idea. That changed Oct. 22 when the Eau Claire City Council voted 8-3 to pledge $5 million toward the $50 million performing arts center that is proposed as part of the public-private Confluence Project. Although it hinges on a laundry list of conditions being met – including funding from the state and private donors – the pledge is nonetheless the first step toward the city helping pay for the arts center.

“I think if folks in the community understood how great of a deal that is, I don’t think there’d be a question,” Councilman Andrew Werthmann said before the vote, noting that the $5 million would be paid for with new tax revenue generated by the project’s commercial component, a proposed mixed-use building worth an estimated $25 million.

Before the vote, the council debated the pledge for nearly two hours, a discussion that hinged largely on whether or not the pledge should be contingent on a referendum of city voters. Several council members, including Monica Lewis, argued that the public should have a chance to weigh in on the issue before the city decides to spend money. “If (voters) actually don’t want this, do we honestly want to move forward with this project?” Lewis asked.

The majority of council members, however, said the council is elected to make such decisions on behalf of constituents, especially when it comes to complex issues like this one that would be hard to explain in a “yes” or “no” referendum question. “I’m not afraid to have a referendum,” said Councilwoman Kathy Mitchell. “But I am opposed to it because I do not think it is a reasonable way for us to get input from citizens.” An amendment by Lewis to make the pledge contingent on a referendum was voted down 7-4.

Councilman Dave Duax, who voted in favor of Lewis’ amendment but ultimately in favor of the pledge as well, said the resolution provides adequate financial protections for the city. “After all these years of talk about what to do downtown, this does provide us one opportunity to move ahead,” Duax said. Voting in favor of the pledge were council members Werthmann, Mitchell, Duax, Catherine Emmanuelle, David Klinkhammer, Eric Larsen, Michael Xiong, and Council President Kerry Kincaid. Those opposed were Lewis, Bob Von Haden, and David Strobel.

The roughly $80 million Confluence Project, unveiled last year, is a joint effort by UW-Eau Claire, the Eau Claire Regional Arts Council, and Commonweal Development to build a multi-stage performing arts venue and a mixed use building (which would include commercial space and a privately-operated dorm) on South Barstow Street. The city’s $5 million pledge would apply to the arts center; the city also will be asked to pay for roughly $5.9 million in infrastructure upgrades. Plans call for a $50 million arts center: $25 million would come from UWEC, $12 million from donors, $5 million each from the city and county, and $3 million from New Market Tax Credits. The city’s pledge is contingent on numerous conditions, including fundraising by other entities, the formation of a governance structure for the arts center, and the funding of a $2.5 million endowment to cover the center’s operations.

The previous evening, an overflow crowd attended a four-hour public hearing on the Confluence Project. Dozens of speakers – from college students to business leaders, from Grammy-winning musician Justin Vernon to Wisconsin poet laureate Max Garland – spoke about the Confluence, with the majority telling the council it should pledge funding toward the project.

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