Confluence Project backers are planning to unveil next week new drawings that will show what a downtown community performing arts center more than 3½ years in the making will look like.
Architects have been spending almost a year designing the two-theater center that will be home to UW-Eau Claire performing arts programs and a stage for both local theater groups and professional touring productions.
The plans will be presented to the public at 1 p.m. Tuesday in the lobby of The State Theatre, 316 Eau Claire St.
Before that anticipated unveiling of what the major downtown building will look like, project backers provided more information on the increasingly valuable piece of riverfront land it will stand upon.
Now a flat lot along Graham Avenue, near the junction of the Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers, where construction equipment being used on the Confluence Project’s other building — a six-story commercial and student housing complex nearing completion — is stored, the 1.85-acre parcel has dramatically risen in value.
Assessed at $609,100 for the old brick storefront buildings and land in 2012, the now-cleared lot was priced at $3.4 million in a land transaction at the end of last year to the nonprofit group that will own the arts center.
Eau Claire Confluence Arts, which will own the new building, is preparing to hire an independent audit firm to scrutinize all the costs that went into the $3.4 million price tag put on the property by the group that’s been developing it.
“We’re going through all these contracts before we sign them,” said Gerald Jacobson, president of the board of directors that will oversee ownership of the center. “We’re going through everything again on it.”
Jacobson, an area banker, is among several business leaders that serve on that board alongside representatives of the city, UW-Eau Claire Foundation, project developer and Eau Claire Regional Arts Council Endowment Trust.
Local developer Dan Clumpner stands by the land price and said data backs up Haymarket Concepts’ expenses tied to the project. But he agrees that an audit is prudent to assure stakeholders that all costs are justified.
“It’s only fair and reasonable that those costs be verified,” he said. “They need to be assured that those costs are supported.”
Haymarket Concepts — a partnership of Commonweal Development, Market & Johnson and the UW-Eau Claire Foundation — bought the property as part of a $2 million package deal from former owner Reinhardt Real Estate Group of La Crosse. Based on the city’s previous assessed value of the two properties involved in the purchase, the future arts center site cost about $1 million to buy.
Since then, Haymarket Concepts has demolished the old buildings, raised the site out of the flood plain, secured permits, developed plans, paid taxes on the land and paid other costs related to preparing the site for the performing arts center priced at $40 million.
Public oversight concerns
Voters With Facts, a group opposed to the Confluence Project whose members have a lawsuit pending on the city’s contributions to the effort, had sent a news release Jan. 28 noting that the new price for the land was well above the city’s $2.35 million assessed value for the property. Group members also stated worries about what a lack of transparency in the project could mean to the use of public funds and donations provided to the project.
“Voters With Facts believes that the most open and transparent process should be used to responsibly safeguard taxpayer dollars as well as the private donations,” wrote Maryjo Cohen, CEO of National Presto Industries and a leading member of the group.
Cohen hoped there would be a way to “unwind” the transactions leading up to building the arts center so there would be a transparent, competitive bid process to get the best price for the sake of government contributions and community donations.
The city does have two seats on the Eau Claire Confluence Arts ownership group and one seat on a separate nonprofit corporation formed to oversee operations of the arts center.
And per the city’s November development agreement for the arts center, the city will get copies of the arts center’s annual budget, business and operations plan, and an audit report.
“After-the-fact audits and budgets and the presence of a few city officials on a private foundation board is no substitute for the safeguards afforded through the competitive bidding process, open records, and open meetings required by state and city law,” Cohen stated in an email to the Leader-Telegram.
Eau Claire attorney Randi Osberg works on behalf of Haymarket Concepts and also handled the initial filing that formed the group that will own the arts center. But after that, the newly formed Eau Claire Confluence Arts’s board of directors went shopping for a different lawyer to represent them in dealings to avoid conflicts of interest.
The board ruled out all Eau Claire law firms to steer clear of attorneys who had dealings with the city government or institutions involved in the Confluence Project, ultimately going to Chippewa Falls attorney Heather Hunt.
“We hired her because we wanted our own legal representation,” Jacobson said. “We wanted somebody completely conflict-free for our legal advice.”
Avoiding conflicts of interest also meant shutting out several board members representing the city, developers and others tied to Haymarket Concepts from meetings from late summer through winter as the land transaction was discussed.
“Conflicted members have not been present since fall,” Jacobson said.
March 1 will be the first time since then that the group’s entire roster of members is scheduled to meet, though Jacobson said decisions involving the land deal would not include those who have been recused.
Cohen contends the developer should not be on the foundation’s board, nor should others who have a private monetary stake in the arts center’s construction.
“That’s a clear conflict of interest,” she wrote.
Owned, not paid
Although public records indicate the land now has a new owner, both Clumpner and Jacobson said money has not yet been exchanged for it.
The agreement between the new owner and developer links payment for the land with financing for the building’s construction.
Architects for the arts center said during a Tuesday meeting that the current schedule anticipates construction beginning in September. The work is expected to last about 20 months, resulting in a mid-2018 opening.
The planned arts center’s owner, Eau Claire Confluence Arts, has not yet gotten control of money raised for the building.
The ownership group’s board still is working through the final requirements to get the $15 million state contribution to the arts center, Jacobson said.
And before tapping into donations to the Confluence Project collected by the Eau Claire Community Foundation and UW-Eau Claire Foundation, Jacobson said the arts center ownership board still has more agreements to sign.
“We don’t want to use people’s money until everything’s nailed down — all the t’s crossed and i’s dotted,” he said, adding that may take up to three months.
As for the $5 million incentive the city has promised the arts center, that won’t come until construction is well under way.
The November agreement with the city requires developers to show at least $5 million worth of construction to get $2 million from the city. Other installments will be handed out as the building reaches other milestones, with the final $750,000 coming when the building is ready to open.
Design plans for the Confluence Project’s community performing arts center will be presented to the public at 1 p.m. Tuesday in the lobby of The State Theatre, 316 Eau Claire St., according to project officials.
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