Tuesday, October 16, 2018

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If funding secured for project, developer hopes arts center can be completed by end of 2016

With state funding for a proposed arts center back on the table,  developer predicts building plans will move swiftly if money assured 

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One of the developers of a proposed arts center in downtown Eau Claire said Thursday that he hopes the $40 million project can be completed as early as the end of 2016 if funding is secured in the coming weeks.

Wednesday’s approval of $15 million in state funding by the Joint Finance Committee via a state grant marked a dramatic turnaround from the committee’s vote three weeks ago to remove the funding from the general purpose revenue portion of the 2015-17 state budget. The committee voted 12-4 Wednesday in favor of the expenditure.

“It was just another day in a long series of ups and downs with this project,” said Dan Clumpner, a partner with Commonweal Development, which, along with the UW-Eau Claire Foundation and Market & Johnson, would develop the $40 million arts center. “At times this project has felt like a roller coaster ride. But (Wednesday) was certainly a good day in a big way.”

That decision has spurred confidence among Confluence backers. Wednesday’s vote makes it likely the $15 million will be part of the state budget expected to be approved next month, Clumpner said. “We feel really good now about the prospects of this happening.”

While building plans for the arts center — which would be part of the Confluence Project that also includes a $26 million mixed-use building currently under construction near the merger of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers — are preliminary, Clumpner said work on the project will accelerate once the funding is assured.  

“Right now our work is just beginning, and it’ll be a very compressed schedule here for a while with an awful lot of work to do,” he said.

When the Joint Finance Committee voted against arts center funding on May 7, its members said other budget initiatives took priority. 

“It was real tough,” Clumpner said of that decision. “Initially we were confused with what had happened. We had been told that the funding was going to happen, so when it didn’t, it was a real surprise.”

Including arts center funding in the general budget meant it had to compete against other major projects, making it more difficult to get committee approval. Moving the project to the capital projects portion of the budget allowed it to stand on its own without competing against K-12 funding and other priorities.

The state grant funding method is what Gov. Scott Walker proposed last summer during a visit here when he announced his support of the arts center. 

Strong effort

After the May 7 rejection, Clumpner was unsure that the project he has worked on for more than three years would happen. But his spirits were lifted two days later when a group of local residents gathered to rally in support of the project. 

“When I saw that, it really did give me a boost,” Clumpner said. 

Legislators from west-central Wisconsin also got involved, lobbying their colleagues to support the arts center. They explained the measure’s importance not only to showcasing Eau Claire’s vibrant arts scene but to boosting the economy and revitalizing downtown.

“The legislators from this part of the state deserve major credit for this,” UW-Eau Claire Foundation President Kimera Way said Thursday. 

Way said support for the project also grew as Joint Finance Committee members realized that a full renovation of the university’s Haas Fine Arts Center, which would be necessary without the Confluence arts center, would cost more than $15 million and wouldn’t directly benefit downtown.

In recent days Clumpner and other arts center proponents grew more optimistic. But they felt far from certain efforts to reverse the May 7 decision would succeed.

“I was feeling lots of anxiety about this,” Clumpner said. “I had learned that nothing is certain with this project until it has been approved.”  

Meanwhile, donations also have increased in recent weeks, growing closer to the announced $13.5 million goal. On Wednesday, 35 OakLeaf Surgical Hospital physicians pledged $1 million, bringing donations to more than $9 million. 

“We’re so excited about our physicians,” said OakLeaf Surgical Hospital CEO Anne Hargrave-Thomas. “All of us recognize the benefits of the Confluence Project, and we appreciate those pledges.”

‘Stepped up’

Clumpner, along with other Confluence supporters, attended the May 7 Joint Finance Committee meeting in person. On Wednesday he watched the committee’s proceedings from Eau Claire.

“We know there is still more work to do,” Clumpner said. “We know this isn’t certain. But it’s a big step in the right direction. And it was the community support that was responsible for that decision. Our legislators and the people of Eau Claire really stepped up.”

Emerson can be reached at 715-830-5911, 800-236-7077 or julian.emerson@ecpc.com. Dohms can be reached at 715-833-9206, 800-236-7077 or elizabeth.dohms@ecpc.com. Reporter Eric Lindquist contributed to this report. 


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