Monday, October 15, 2018

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Ceremonial start of the Confluence Arts Center construction delights supporters

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    Maya Kakegawa-Fernandez, 11, of Eau Claire watches speakers during Thursday’s groundbreaking ceremony for the Confluence Arts Center. Work on the $45 million arts center is expected to begin later this month, and it is scheduled to open in 2018.

    Staff photo by Marisa Wojcik
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    Visit Eau Claire executive director Linda John, left, and other community members throw dirt during the groundbreaking ceremony Thursday for the Confluence Arts Center in downtown Eau Claire.

    Staff photo by Marisa Wojcik
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Dan Clumpner and Dan Market spent the hours before Thursday’s groundbreaking ceremony for the Confluence Arts Center pondering submitted bids and building designs for the project. 

That work was symbolic of the seemingly never-ending effort arts center backers have poured into the project that began five years ago as discussions between Clumpner, Market and UW-Eau Claire representatives. On Thursday evening, under cloudy skies that threatened rain, the long, winding, difficult effort to make the arts center a reality came to fruition in the form of a celebration of the $45 million project at the merger of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers.

“It felt surreal,” Clumpner, principal for Commonweal Development Corp, said a short time after some of the people associated with the project took part in a ceremonial digging of earth at the construction site with golden shovels. “It took us so much to get to this point. It seemed so many times like this would never happen. Now here we are, about to begin construction, and it’s hard for me to believe it’s really happening.”

Market expressed a similar sentiment. The chairman of Market & Johnson — which partnered with Commonweal and Blugold Real Estate Foundation, a supporting entity of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation, to develop the arts center and the adjacent $36 million Haymarket Landing building — said the road to starting construction on the arts center later this month has been full of twists and turns. Haymarket Landing opened in August.

“It’s like, ‘My God, it really is happening,’ ” Market, smiling slightly, said as event attendees shook hands, hugged and laughed in the minutes after the groundbreaking ceremony ended.

Work on the arts center should begin by the end of this month, Market said. Bids were received three weeks ago, and Market acknowledged some of those prices were higher than hoped for. 

Other bids were incomplete, he said, and alternate bids are still being finalized as building design plans proceed. 

“Some of the ideas we’re talking about are about cost savings, and some are just better ideas for this building,” Market said.

Several speakers at the groundbreaking attended by several hundred acknowledged the oftentimes challenging path to reaching the construction point with the arts center. For a time the $15 million state funding vital to the project was in doubt, and an additional $5 million from the city of Eau Claire and $3.5 million from Eau Claire County had to be procured. Private fundraising continues and totals about $15 million. Project backers hope to reach $16 million raised locally and are seeking additional funds via national foundations. 

In addition to money challenges, the project faced two lawsuits filed by a group calling itself Voters With Facts that questioned the process used to approve it. And many doubted whether such an ambitious venture could occur in Eau Claire.  

Former Eau Claire County Judge Thomas Barland, who along with his wife, Jill, are among fundraising leaders for the project, said the arts center is a sign of the resilient, can-do attitude of Eau Claire. 

Four years ago, when Confluence Project plans were first revealed, the project faced opposition, doubters “and a relatively small cadre of supporters,” Thomas Barland said. The hundreds gathered for the ceremony are evidence of how that has changed, he said.

“There is a new life where previously pessimism prevailed,” he said. 

Eau Claire City Council President Kerry Kincaid also noted challenges with moving the arts center forward. And while building the project remains, Thursday was a time for joy, she said. 

“Today we can rest a bit and celebrate that in 2016, Eau Claire built something that changed everything.”

Contact: 715-830-5911,

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