A downtown Eau Claire arts center that will get more than half its $45 million budget from government sources promised an open bidding process, but its ownership board plans to continue holding meetings behind closed doors for the time being.
During a March 1 meeting, members of the nonprofit Eau Claire Confluence Arts decided “to not open its meetings to the public for the foreseeable future” due to negotiations tied to philanthropy and donor recognition, according to a news release sent late Monday on behalf of the group.
“We talk about people we’re going to solicit donations from in the meetings,” said Jerry Jacobson, chairman of the arts center ownership board and president of Northwestern Bank in Chippewa Falls. “We’d rather keep that confidential.”
However, Eau Claire Confluence Arts is committed to providing regular updates and progress reports to the various stakeholders and general public, the news release stated.
Confluence Project backers are opting to pay for an increase in the arts center’s budget by seeking more donations and grants. The building’s price tag raised from $40 million to $45 million in February.
Jacobson said the arts center’s ownership group is looking into opening its meetings when it begins to receive $23.5 million in contributions from the state and Eau Claire city and county governments.
“Obviously, we haven’t gotten any money from the government yet,” he said.
The Confluence Project is getting a $15 million grant from the state government through the 2015-17 budget. But because the arts center is not a state project, it is not subject to Wisconsin’s open meetings and state bidding laws, according to an email from Jim Dick, spokesman for the state Department of Administration.
The second-largest government contributor to the project also did not encumber those building the arts center to follow the same laws that apply to local government bodies. The city of Eau Claire’s agreement for its $5 million contribution to the arts center does not state the building’s owners need to abide by Wisconsin’s open meetings laws.
However, that contract does require the arts center to furnish three documents annually to the city: a business and operations plan, its budget and an audit report. The city also has members on boards overseeing the operations and ownership of the arts center, as well as a representative that will attend meetings with the builders during construction.
Members of Voters With Facts — a group with a lawsuit pending over the city’s contributions to the arts center — have urged more transparency in the arts center’s development.
“It is unfortunate that ECCA is unwilling to honor the generosity of taxpayers and donors with a more open and transparent process,” Cyndi Burton wrote. “The governor and state legislature did not attach oversight to the $15 million from the state, apparently trusting that the oversight would occur at the local level. Big mistake on their part.”
Fellow Voters With Facts member Peter Bartl also has advocated for Eau Claire Confluence Arts to use open bidding to get the most out of government contributions and private donations for the building.
“Competition works because it provides an incentive to all to provide the best price in order to win the bid,” he wrote to the Leader-Telegram. “Because of the size and prestige associated with building the art center, we can expect intense competition if we open the project to competitive bidding.”
The ownership group did establish last week that it will use a competitive, open bidding process for the waterfront building along the Chippewa River in downtown Eau Claire.
Bidders will be sought through newspaper advertisements, regional builders exchanges and other services connected to the construction industry, according to Eau Claire Confluence Art’s newly approved procurement policy. Eau Claire firm Market & Johnson, which the ownership group voted to hire as construction manager for the project, also will use its database of regional subcontractors to seek bidders.
Meetings for contractors interested in working on the project will be open to the public, Jacobson said, as will as the opening of the bids. Based on the project’s current schedule, those meetings will be held this summer. The arts center is planned to open in 2018.
The ownership group also voted during its March 1 meeting to enter into a contract with Commonweal Development of Eau Claire to serve as project consultant.
Wifpli was hired to audit the $3.4 million price that Eau Claire Confluence Arts is poised to pay for land prepared for the arts center. The land had been owned by Haymarket Concepts — the partnership of Market & Johnson, Commonweal and UW-Eau Claire Foundation subsidiary Blugold Real Estate — that had created the Confluence Project.
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