From its inception in May 2012, the proposed downtown Eau Claire Confluence Arts Center has been accurately labeled as a “public-private partnership.”
What else would you call a $45 million project funded by $23.5 million in state and local taxes, an anticipated $3 million in tax credits and a goal of $18.5 million in donations?
Now, however, as this project advances toward an expected groundbreaking later this year, there are concerns that the private side of the partnership is muscling out the public interest.
Critics raise two points. First, that local building contractor Market & Johnson should have had to compete in an open-bidding process to be the construction manager rather than being selected by Eau Claire Confluence Arts, the nonprofit group that will oversee construction and own the arts center. Market & Johnson has been involved with this project from the start as a partner in Haymarket Concepts, which also includes Commonweal Development and Blugold Real Estate, an arm of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation.
The second concern is that as a nonprofit, Eau Claire Confluence Arts meetings won’t be open to the public, even though without the $23.5 million in tax support the arts center couldn’t happen.
There’s a lot to like about the Market & Johnson involvement. This long-time local company has a proven track record of quality work, examples of which abound throughout the region and beyond. It currently is building the new parking ramp, the new school in Altoona and The Lismore hotel makeover. It also built the new Eau Claire County Jail/courthouse renovation. It consistently wins public projects via open bidding.
Also, although Market & Johnson will be the construction manager, the various contracts will be openly bid, including work that Market & Johnson can and presumably will want to do. “Market & Johnson is welcome to bid on anything, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to get the bids,” said Gerald Jacobson, president of Northwestern Bank in Chippewa Falls and president of Eau Claire Confluence Arts.
As for the second point, it is hoped Eau Claire Confluence Arts members consider inviting the public to future meetings. The group is expected to take up the transparency issue soon, Jacobson said.
As a nonprofit, the arts center ownership group doesn’t have to open its meetings, and there are complicating factors. First, this group is basically volunteers who may not be comfortable having their every word open to scrutiny. Second, when it comes to awarding contracts, the group may consider factors other than the low bid, such as how much the competing firms are willing to donate to the project either monetarily or in in-kind contributions. Having these discussions in public could be awkward for the competing firms.
But those favoring less transparency should remember that fresh in taxpayers’ minds is the fact that the former Eau Claire County treasurer just went off to prison and his main assistant awaits sentencing for using tax dollars like their personal ATM. That has severely shaken the public’s trust in how their money is cared for.
Perhaps Eau Claire Confluence Arts can use the state open meetings law as their guide. That is, discuss sensitive issues privately, but actually award the bids and discuss other agenda items in an open forum with some explanation to the public of what factors led to their closed-door decisions.
— Don Huebscher, editor