Confluence on Life Support?

Not quite. However the struggle continues. But no matter what happens, this community has done its part, and we need to be proud of that.

Nick Meyer

Last week the news shocked the Eau Claire community: The Joint Finance Committee of the Wisconsin Legislature voted down the governor’s recommended $15 million in state funding for the Confluence Project – at least as it was proposed through the state’s general purpose revenue funds (see a detailed article from Tom Giffey here). And for now, the funding was also denied the ability to be bonded (borrowed, which is a completely typical way to fund capital projects) because of a hardline stance along party lines. While the budget still has yet to pass through the entire Legislature (where a “Hail Mary” pass could occur), this situation is most certainly not good news. And unfortunately, most of the local public and private funding – standing at more than $16 million so far – is contingent on the state’s $15 million chip-in. So needless to say, this news is not only not good, but really quite bad. But truly, all is not lost. Those closest to the project, including bipartisan local legislators, remain hopeful there are multiple paths forward. Though to be sure, the battle will most certainly be uphill – and even more so than it has been.

“When it comes to the Confluence, here, in our community, we’ve done what we needed to do on a grand scale. And that’s a big, nearly unprecedented occurrence in recent local history of which I couldn’t be more proud.”

So, the moral of the story? Well first, big surprise – you often can’t count on politicians. I get it – we’re in a difficult state budget right now and it was just announced that projected revenues are low over the next couple years (and people can rigorously debate why that might be). And frankly it was the terrible timing of that announcement, just a day before the vote, that likely caused the knee-jerk reaction. When it comes to the budget, certainly, the proposed cuts to the UW-System, the DNR, and countless other important agencies and ideas are as bad or worse statewide than a potential axing of the Confluence Project. But a lot about this budget situation in Madison could have been avoided, as local politicians and those on the committee who did vote in favor of the project are quick to point out. Now, unfortunately, in a worst-case scenario, the Confluence could become just the latest casualty. Thankfully as you read this, there are people fighting hard behind the scenes who are determined to stop that from happening. And their main weapon continues to be basic math.

The state’s $15 million investment in the public/private collaboration created on this project, if made now, would save state taxpayers at least that much in capital expenditures they’d be forced to make on a potential state-only facility secluded on campus in the future. Because if legislators ultimately turn this down they’ll soon have to spend well over twice as much to meet the university’s dire needs (while abandoning those of the community). Right now, thanks to the huge local support, the state would get a $40 million facility for a mere $15 million (or $21 million if the investment was bonded). Add in all the direct and indirect revenue associated with the project (sales, payroll, and property taxes, spin-off economic investment, and much more) and either investment figure is obviously worth it. That’s just part of why so many people are so flabbergasted at this shortsighted decision. Nearly two years ago they told us basically, “Thank you for this clever and resourceful solution – if you get your local ducks in a row, we’ll support this project.” Well we did, and now they didn’t. At least not yet. And while what locally has been a rare example of a wonderfully non-partisan public/private collaboration meeting a variety of community and state goals, with one quick vote in Madison, it suddenly somehow became a typically frustrating partisan issue.

And that brings us back home to the real story: When it comes to the Confluence, here, in our community, we’ve done what we needed to do on a grand scale. And that’s a big, nearly unprecedented occurrence in recent local history of which I couldn’t be more proud. No local naysayers or obstructionists can take that away. Right here at home we achieved new heights in public/private cooperation, dramatic votes of public support, considerable amounts of corporate and individual fundraising, and a substantial growth in our collective understanding of the importance of placemaking and economic development. We made some extremely positive things happen in this town that had never happened before and that people thought we flat-out could not do. We will own that forever, and we will do it again. The future is arriving in Eau Claire. We are educated and we are mobilized. The tide has shifted, and it’s never shifting back. Stay tuned ...