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Confluence Must Take Dual Path

backers must gain state support, finish local deals

Tom Giffey

Supporters of the Confluence Project didn’t have long to celebrate their victories in two April 1 referendums before getting back to work. Now their efforts are aimed at ensuring the project clears a number of local hurdles while simultaneously gaining favor within the UW System, the state Legislature, and the governor’s office.

“I’m cautiously optimistic and hopeful that it will have bipartisan support.” – state Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire

“I’m cautiously optimistic and hopeful that it will have bipartisan support,” state Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, said of the project, the centerpiece of which is a $50 million performing arts center in downtown Eau Claire that will be shared by the community and UW-Eau Claire. Obtaining the necessary $25 million in state funding will require navigating both the UW System and state budget processes over the coming 14 months, an effort that will include getting approval from the Board of Regents, majorities in both houses of the state Legislature, and ultimately the governor, who will sign the 2015-17 state budget into law in the summer of 2015.

Wachs and other Confluence advocates have reason for cautious optimism: A post-election press conference at the Volume One Gallery was attended by both Wachs and one of his Republican colleagues, state Rep. Warren Petryk of Eleva. Considering that Republicans are expected to retain control of both the state Assembly and Senate after the November elections, GOP support is vital for the project. Petryk recently told the Leader-Telegram newspaper that “If the (state) Department of Administration says it’s possible, I will do what I can to make it happen.”

Establishing a first-of-its-kind joint ownership model for the arts center has been a complicated undertaking, but one that’s gotten a boost because Eau Claire city and county voters have now gone to the ballot box to support the Confluence Project. “The message to Madison is very unique,” UWEC Chancellor James Schmidt said after the post-election press conference. “It will probably be the only project of its kind they’ll be considering.”

Madison won’t be the only place for Confluence conversations in the coming months: Several big steps have to be taken close to home, too. First, the city of Eau Claire must amend Tax Increment Financing District 8 to include the project site along South Barstow Street. (New taxes generated by the project’s privately built multiuse building will help pay for the community’s share of the arts center.) Next, the city and that private firm – Commonweal Development – must finalize a development agreement. Finally, all the parties involved in the art center must dot the i’s and cross the t’s on an ownership model. While the exact details of the model aren’t yet finalized, it is clear that the facility will be jointly owned by the state (via the university) and a new local non-profit group representing the arts community.

Beyond all this, there’s the matter of getting another $10 million in private donations. In other words, the work to turn the Confluence dream into reality will extend far beyond the election.