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Confluence Project flowing forward

The Confluence Project, an estimated $80 million public-private development in downtown Eau Claire, continues to progress after receiving key support on several fronts.

The project, planned on land at the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers, includes a $50 million shared university-community arts center and a $28 million privately developed mixed-use building consisting of first-floor retail and commercial space, parking and an apartment complex suitable for university student housing. Plans also include $2 million for a public plaza between the arts center and mixed-use building as well as pedestrian-bicycle paths along the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers.

On April 1, 2014, voters in the city of Eau Claire and Eau Claire County voted on two Confluence Project-related referendum questions. The county advisory referendum asked voters whether Eau Claire County should provide $3.5 million in funding toward construction of the arts center. It was approved by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent.

The city referendum vote, while not directly related to the Confluence Project, would have subjected the city’s ability to invest $1 million or more “on any building construction that is planned for dramatic, musical or artistic performances” to a binding referendum vote. That referendum was rejected by a margin of 59 percent to 41 percent. The outcome of the vote enables the city to proceed with its $5 million pledge toward construction of the arts center.

On June 23, during a speech at an Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce business luncheon, Gov. Scott Walker for the first time publicly expressed his support for the project and said he would include funding for it in his 2015-17 state budget proposal.

“With this project you’ve got a great partnership with the private sector, the public sector coming together,” Walker said. “We think that’s an important project not just for Eau Claire and not just for UW-Eau Claire but for this entire region.”

In response to the governor’s endorsement, UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt said, “I was pleased to hear the governor cite the innovative partnership behind the project as it’s clear these kinds of partnerships hold great promise for future economic development across Wisconsin. As I’ve said repeatedly since coming on board at UW-Eau Claire a year ago, the Confluence Project is a model for a new way in which government and private enterprise can work together to achieve things that no single entity can create on its own.”

"Based on my decades of experience in business, real estate and community leadership, I understand the power of public-private partnerships. They create jobs and stimulate the creation and expansion of other businesses. They directly and indirectly improve a region’s quality of life." — Regina Millner

Mary Burke, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, also announced her support for the Confluence Project saying, if elected, she would have included the project in her 2015-17 state budget.

“It’s obviously a proposal that many believe would help grow the economy and community in Eau Claire, and I believe that public-private partnerships are something we should be looking at,” Burke said in an interview with WQOW-TV in Eau Claire.

The UW System Board of Regents provided another boost to the Confluence Project during its meeting in August. At that meeting, regents approved the UW System 2015-17 capital project recommendations and included specific language reaffirming the regents’ support for the project (regents had first passed a resolution of support in October 2012) and directing UW System President Ray Cross to work with the Wisconsin Department of Administration to implement the project.

Commenting on the resolution, regents Ed Manydeeds and John Behling of Eau Claire praised the collaborative nature of the project as well as the overwhelming voter support in favor of it.

Regina Millner, vice president of the Board of Regents, also voiced strong support for the Confluence Project.

“Based on my decades of experience in business, real estate and community leadership, I understand the power of public-private partnerships,” Millner said. “They create jobs and stimulate the creation and expansion of other businesses. They directly and indirectly improve a region’s quality of life.”

Because of the unique nature of the project, regents indicated funding should be pursued through a nonstate agency grant, a mechanism used by the state to contribute funds toward construction of community-based and other building projects rather than through the traditional UW System capital budget request.

According to the Department of Administration, a nonstate agency grant applicant must be either a nonprofit entity or a municipality. In the case of the Confluence Project, the grant would be used to fund construction of the arts center only. The nonstate agency grant is subject to the same approval process as UW System and other state building projects in the state of Wisconsin 2015-17 biennial budget.

UW-Eau Claire Foundation has key role in mixed-use building

Haymarket Concepts LLC, the private developer that owns the properties where the Confluence Project would be built, is proceeding with construction of the mixed-use building at the corners of South Barstow and Eau Claire streets.

Haymarket Concepts is comprised of Commonweal Development and Market & Johnson, both of Eau Claire, and Blugold Real Estate, a subsidiary of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation.

The mixed-use building will have retail and commercial space on the first floor and five stories of apartments above. Plans call for 119 apartments that will range in size from studio to four bedrooms. The apartments will be suitable for university students but also would be available to nonstudent tenants.

Blugold Real Estate is playing a key role in the mixed-use building to support development of much-needed quality student housing in Eau Claire. As part of its 20-year Campus Facilities Master Plan, UW-Eau Claire conducted a comprehensive housing demand study. The study determined current university student housing exceeds 100 percent capacity and that there is significantly more demand for university housing than is available.

There is a clear need for quality housing for UW-Eau Claire students both on campus and in the community, said Neil Lipinski, chair of the Blugold Real Estate Committee.

“The Foundation board of directors recognizes this need and is financially supporting construction of the Confluence Project mixed-use building,” Lipinski said.

Plans call for the mixed-use building construction to begin this fall and be completed by June 1, 2016.

In addition to its role in the mixed-use building, Blugold Real Estate is a member of the nonprofit entity that has applied for the nonstate grant for the Confluence Project arts center. Other members include the city of Eau Claire, Eau Claire Regional Arts Council Trust and significant philanthropic donors to the project.

If the Confluence Project nonstate agency grant is approved as part of the 2015-17 state budget, construction could begin in summer 2016.