Let's Do This Together

Confluence Project partnership provides a fantastic model for moving forward

James C. Schmidt, illustrated by Erik Johnson

The Confluence Project wasn’t my idea. Its genesis came in the fall of 2007 when Clear Vision Eau Claire, through the participation of hundreds of local citizens, identified new and improved community events venues as one of the most important priorities for our community’s future economic vitality and quality of life.

While the Clear Vision process predates my time here, I agree with the premise that Eau Claire, and UW-Eau Claire, would greatly benefit from such venues. And I believe the Confluence Project would be an important step toward realizing that goal.

Here’s why. UW-Eau Claire must replace Kjer Theatre and also enhance Haas Fine Arts Center. The reason is simple: Our fine and performing arts facilities do not measure up to collegiate quality by any objective standard and no longer function effectively to support our nationally renowned programs. The community also faces serious challenges given the well-documented deficiencies of the State Theatre in downtown Eau Claire.

The university must replace Kjer Theatre and enhance other fine and performing arts facilities. It is our highest facility priority. Doing nothing is not an option – we will pursue a project in the 2015-17 state budget. The question is – what will that project be?Couple those two realities and you arrive at the intersection where need meets opportunity for a community-campus collaboration. The Confluence Project community arts center would not only provide new arts facilities for both the community and the university, but would have the added benefits of eliminating operating expense redundancy (each having to pay the ongoing expense of operating their own facilities), reducing potential competition between two arts centers less than a mile apart, and revitalizing the South Barstow business district.
We recognize not all in the community support such collaboration. In fact, there is not universal support for the Confluence Project on our campus. But what are the realistic alternatives?

As stated earlier, the university must replace Kjer Theatre and enhance other fine and performing arts facilities. It is our highest facility priority. Doing nothing is not an option – we will pursue a project in the 2015-17 state budget. The question is – what will that project be?

As of now, the Confluence Project is our first choice and we have included it in our capital projects submittal to the UW System. However, we also are in the process of examining other options including an addition to Haas Fine Arts Center or a new building on the Water Street parking lot. All three options are consistent with the 2010-2030 Campus Facilities Master Plan which was developed in consultation with members of the campus and greater Eau Claire communities.

It is my belief that investing $25 million into a $50 million shared community-university arts center is a much wiser investment of state dollars than constructing a university-only facility. That’s because, through collaboration, the university would have access to much more and varied space, at less cost, in the Confluence Project community arts center than it would on campus. The same is true for the Eau Claire Regional Arts Council and other local arts organizations. Furthermore, if we build our own center on campus, the community will be left to address the shortcomings of the State Theatre.

The truth of the matter is the fiscal constraints facing both the university and local governments require us to re-examine the “old way” of doing things alone and create new and innovative approaches to accomplishing important goals together.

Of course, there is more to the Confluence Project than the community arts center. The proposed mixed-use building, which is being privately developed, would also meet the needs of the university and community.

UW-Eau Claire has for decades suffered a chronic shortage of student housing – forcing us to house students in study lounges in the residence halls and in local hotels. With the exception of Chancellor’s Hall, our extremely popular apartment-style residence hall, all of the housing on campus was constructed between 1955 and 1969. Much of that housing must either be replaced or totally renovated. That will require us to take existing housing off-line, worsening our chronic housing shortage. In short, we desperately need more student housing options.

The mixed-use building at the Confluence would provide up to 100 new apartment units that would be available to non-first-year students. This is not a “dormitory” but rather an apartment complex. The private developers have said that while it would be designed primarily to house students, non-students could live there as well. The apartment complex could be home to as many as 375 more downtown residents – residents who would enliven South Barstow through their presence and their patronage of local restaurants and businesses.

The first floor of the mixed-use building would include commercial and retail space for restaurants, retailers, and other businesses. Imagine sitting outside a café on a beautiful summer evening (that takes a lot of imagination in the midst of this winter!) enjoying a meal while overlooking the confluence of our two beautiful rivers. The mixed-use building would make such an experience possible.

This is a big decision for Eau Claire. But it is important to note that we are not alone in exploring these kinds of opportunities. Collaboration between universities and their communities to make mutually beneficial improvements, especially in downtown districts, is a growing trend nationally.

As chancellor, I intend to integrate UW-Eau Claire more fully and meaningfully into the community. I am committed to being a strong partner and hope the Confluence Project is one of many productive partnerships to come.