Funding for the Confluence Project’s performing arts center in downtown Eau Claire was included in the state budget proposal in February, taken out May 7 and put back in Wednesday, but local Republican legislators don’t expect the monetary roller-coaster ride to continue.
“I don’t foresee any legislator voting against the budget because of the Confluence Project,” state Rep. Kathy Bernier of Lake Hallie said Friday in a news conference at Phoenix Park, just across the Eau Claire River from the site of the planned arts center that would be shared by UW-Eau Claire and the community.
“I would echo that. I just don’t see that happening,” chimed in state Sen. Terry Moulton, R-town of Seymour.
The two legislators shed some light on the legislative process that left Confluence Project backers shocked and disappointed three weeks ago when the Republican-controlled Legislature’s budget-writing committee removed $15 million in general purpose revenue that GOP Gov. Scott Walker had reserved for the project in his 2015-17 state budget proposal.
Those same supporters, who never gave up their lobbying efforts on behalf of the arts center at the heart of downtown revitalization efforts, were ecstatic Wednesday when that same body voted to award a state grant in the same amount for the same project.
“There was a lot going on behind the scenes,” Bernier said.
As soon as area legislators heard the Joint Finance Committee was planning to remove Confluence Project funding from the budget, they began calling committee members and GOP legislative leaders to stress the importance of the project to UW-Eau Claire’s educational mission and the Chippewa Valley’s economy.
In the end, the argument that seemed to sway committee members was that the collaborative nature of the project would save state taxpayers at least $20 million in the long run, as compared with alternative options for replacing the dilapidated Kjer Theatre and upgrading Haas Fine Arts Center on campus, Bernier and Moulton agreed.
“Once all of the changes were made to the project, we had an opportunity to evaluate it and realized that this in the end is a very good project and a huge money-saver for taxpayers,” Bernier said.
Even without factoring in the cost of replacing Kjer, a recent UW-Eau Claire study showed the university would require a 42,000-square-foot addition to the 45-year-old Haas Center if the Confluence Project arts center is built or a 102,000-square-foot addition if it is not built, said Mike Rindo, assistant chancellor of facilities and university relations.
“We’re getting so much more for the university’s use for $15 million than what we ever could have gotten by doing something on campus,” he said.
Part of large bill
Another factor that makes Confluence Project funding safer down the road as it faces the remaining hurdles of gaining approval by the full Legislature and the governor’s signature is that the grant now is part of a large omnibus budget bill instead of a separate item among many seeking general purpose revenue, Bernier said, noting that some committee members previously viewed it as “low-hanging fruit.”
That change also led to a complete reversal in party support, as the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee voted 12-4 on a party-line vote May 7 to pull the Confluence Project funding and then approved the grant by the same party-line vote this week. The four Democrats who supported the Confluence Project in the earlier vote pulled their backing only because they disapproved of other parts of the omnibus budget motion, Bernier said.
Indeed, Democrats specifically mentioned their support for the arts center despite their rejection of the omnibus bill, said UW-Eau Claire Foundation President Kimera Way, who credited bipartisan support from area legislators for restoration of project funding.
“It wasn’t about politics,” she said. “It was about what’s right for the Chippewa Valley.”
Rindo noted that the governor also was working behind the scenes to find a way to restore the Confluence Project funding.
‘This is a model’
Moulton said the Legislature has been promoting public-private partnerships, and committee members may have recognized the Confluence Project is a good example of that approach. Plans call for the $40 million arts center to be paid for by the $15 million state grant, $13.5 million in local donations ($9 million of which are already pledged), $5 million from the city of Eau Claire, $3.5 million from Eau Claire County and $3 million in new market tax credits.
“This is a model that could be used throughout the state,” Moulton said.
The performing arts center still is being designed but is expected to include a 1,200- to 1,500-seat theater to replace the State Theatre and a flexible 400-seat theater to replace Kjer Theatre. Classrooms, workshops, studios, rehearsal rooms and offices also would be included in the structure at the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers.
While Way shared the legislators’ optimistic outlook about project funding surviving the budget process, she has seen too many ups and down to celebrate yet.
“I’ll save the jubilation for when the governor signs the budget,” she said.
A final budget is expected to be approved by July 1.
Lindquist can be reached at 715-833-9209, 800-236-7077 or firstname.lastname@example.org.