Three weeks ago, it looked as if the 3-year-old effort to build a new $40 million community arts center in downtown Eau Claire was toast.
Talk about wrestling victory from the jaws of defeat, although given the roller-coaster ride this proposal has taken since its unveiling in May 2012, perhaps we better not break out the champagne just yet.
Still, it was exciting and a bit surprising news Wednesday when the co-chairs of the Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee announced that $15 million in state support for the Confluence Project arts center was being returned to the budget. The same panel ousted it from Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed 2015-17 state budget in a 12-4 party-line vote on May 7.
State Rep. Warren Petryk, R-Eleva, said efforts continued behind the scenes after that vote to get the committee majority to reconsider. Petryk said that Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, a Joint Finance member, played a role in getting the funding back on the table. Whatever and whomever helped revive the arts center funding deserves credit for recognizing a bargain and realizing an opportunity like this doesn’t come along that often.
There are many winners in this deal. At the top of the list are future UW-Eau Claire students who will have a state-of-the-art facility to replace Kjer Theatre — thus the $15 million in state participation. Other winners are regional performers and arts patrons who will enjoy a variety of performances that now bypass Eau Claire. The State Theatre served us long and well, but the state-local collaboration will get us a much nicer facility to attract better outside performers and enhance the experience of local shows.
Other winners are those in the private sector already committed to projects that fit nicely with an arts center — specifically, the $26 million mixed-use building going up in the first block of South Barstow Street and the $16 million renovation of the former Ramada Convention Center that will be known as The Lismore. The expectation is that other private development will follow.
Local support has been strong throughout. Donations have reached $9 million, and city and county voters approved $8.5 million in support via referendums. With the news Wednesday that the project is back on track, perhaps a new wave of donations will surface.
The proposal still must be OK’d by both the state Senate and Assembly, signed by the governor and approved by the state Building Commission, all of which Petryk said it appears will happen. Let’s hope he’s right.
Those majority Republicans far from the Chippewa Valley concerned that this project may be a “white elephant” should reflect on how it came to be. It’s a conservative, collaborative approach to promote and enhance business, the arts, UW-Eau Claire, tourism and downtown redevelopment.
Now, for the first time, we can actually see the entire Confluence Project becoming a reality.
It’s hard not to be excited about what this will mean for our community and region.
— Don Huebscher, editor