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City OKs bike share ordinance

In hopes of signaling the city is ready and open for bike-share services, Eau Claire established rules for companies that might seek to place bicycles for rent out in public spaces.

The City Council voted 9-0 Tuesday evening to create ordinances for dockless bicycle sharing, which is seen in other large cities where people can use smartphones to find and rent bicycles owned by private companies.

Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle has been interested in seeing bike share services come to Eau Claire for years, citing the health, accessibility and “fun factor” they would bring to the city.

“If more people were riding bikes, we’d have fewer cars to worry about,” she said, noting that vehicle parking often is a major consideration for projects in the city.

While she’s not “anti-car,” Emmanuelle said, Eau Claire would see benefits from people riding bicycles or taking public transit more often.

Bicycles can be put out for rent from March through November, according to the ordinance that also created a license and fees for vendors that want to do business in Eau Claire. Services would be required to rent two bike parking sites from the city and companies must have a brick-and-mortar location in Eau Claire where bikes will be repaired.

One part of the bike share ordinance that did not get approved would’ve also limited where anybody can lock up their personal bikes around Eau Claire.

As originally proposed, the new ordinance would’ve specified that locking bikes to trees, streetlights, signposts and public art would be prohibited.

Councilman Jeremy Gragert, a bike enthusiast, said there are not enough bike racks and corrals downtown and in other popular areas where people ride.

“We’re just not ready for that because we don’t have the bike parking there yet,” he said.

Councilman David Strobel, a downtown businessman, contended that limits on bike parking would protect the street trees, decorative light posts, benches and other fixtures that businesses helped pay for.

“I think it’s fair to leave that language in to protect our investments down there,” he said.

Strobel added that more bicycle racks will soon be coming to Haymarket Landing and other popular downtown destinations.

However, the council voted 7-2 to not impose limits on what bikes can be locked to as the majority contended there aren’t enough racks or corrals currently.

“We can’t restrict without having another solution,” Councilwoman Kate Beaton said.

Tax exemption denied

The City Council decided that a 200-bed off-campus student housing building owned by a branch of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation should not be exempt from property taxes.

The council voted 8-1 Tuesday to deny Blugold Real Estate’s request for tax exemption for Aspenson-Mogensen Hall, 222 Water St.

Emmanuelle cast the lone dissenting vote, seeking a delay so the city could work out an agreement with the nonprofit instead of legal proceedings.

“I think we could use some more time, and a better solution is out there,” she said.

However, her colleagues sided with the city’s attorney, who advised that Blugold Real Estate’s claim be denied.

Councilman Terry Weld said that despite the vote, the city can still work out a “fair and equitable agreement with both parties.”

The city received about $223,000 in taxes last year from the student apartments valued at $11.15 million at Aspenson-Mogensen Hall.

Other business

Also during the council’s Tuesday evening meeting:

• Summer road projects for two main streets that link North Hastings Way to north side neighborhoods and businesses were approved in 9-0 votes. Sections of Melby Street and Eddy Lane, just west of North Hastings Way, will be rebuilt by the city while Union Pacific improves safety of the railroad crossings there.

• State Department of Natural Resources grants will provide $90,000 toward two projects planned this summer in Eau Claire. The grants will partially pay for a downtown recreational trail connecting Haymarket Plaza to Lake Street and replacing a dilapidated outdoor staircase in Carson Park.

• Beekeepers will have an easier time applying for permits to keep honeybee hives in their backyards. Instead of getting approval from 80 percent of their neighbors, beekeepers will now be allowed to get permits unless more than 40 percent of nearby homeowners object or one has a documented allergy to bees.

• Beekeepers will not be allowed to place hives in several community parks. That had been proposed in October, but was removed from the final proposal to change beekeeping ordinances that the council approved Tuesday in a 9-0 vote.

Lawmakers view UW-EC science building deficiencies

When giving a tour to visiting dignitaries, most people like to put their best foot forward.

That was definitely not the case Tuesday when UW-Eau Claire officials guided regional lawmakers and two members of the state Building Commission around 56-year-old Phillips Science Hall on campus.

The visitors saw a pan collecting water dripping through a leaking roof, homemade dust barriers held together with duct tape and evidence of infiltration by mice, bats and insects because of the aging structure’s many deficiencies.

It was all part of an effort to demonstrate to Building Commission members why replacing Phillips is a top priority for UW-Eau Claire and has been part of the university’s master plan since 2011. University officials are seeking to have $256 million included in the state’s next two biennial budgets for a proposed new Science and Health Sciences Building, and securing a Building Commission recommendation is a key step toward achieving that goal.

“You really do have to demonstrate to the legislators some of the shortcomings of the building,” said Mike Rindo, UW-Eau Claire’s assistant chancellor for facilities and university relations. “It really is a matter of not if this needs to be replaced but when, and if it’s not this biennium we’re going to have very serious challenges trying to keep this building operable.”

The tour appeared to have the desired effect on the two visiting Republican members of the Building Commission, Reps. Rob Swearingen of Rhinelander and Mark Born of Beaver Dam, although neither promised support in an unusually competitive budget cycle for state building projects.

“Clearly, the current building has far outlived its usefulness,” Swearingen said in a news conference after what he called the “eye-opening” tour. “I would argue that this is not the image that ... the UW System or the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire wants to project to either faculty considering coming here or students who want to study here.”

Likewise, Born said he was impressed by the work of students and faculty in Phillips but could clearly see how they could do much more in a new building and why the project is such a priority for campus leaders. He cautioned, however, that the Building Commission is considering between $3 billion and $3.5 billion in requests for capital projects this budget cycle, or at least double the typical amount.

“As a Building Commission and Legislature, we have a lot of tough decisions to make,” Born said.

Chancellor James Schmidt told legislators that replacing Phillips has been his top priority since taking over as chancellor in 2013 and maintained a new science building would help the university attract high-quality students and faculty to campus, which in turn would help address the talent shortage plaguing many Chippewa Valley businesses.

Indeed, making the case for state funding of the new science building was a top priority of area chambers of commerce during the recent Chippewa Valley Rally in which representatives of regional businesses visited the state Capitol in Madison to talk to legislators about issues of importance to the Chippewa Valley.

The UW System Board of Regents voted in August to support a new Science and Health Services Building at the Eau Claire campus, but now university officials are asking the Legislature to secure $109 million for the project in the 2019-2021 state budget and enumeration for the remaining $147 million in the following budget.

UW-Eau Claire geology professor Brian Mahoney guided legislators around parts of his cramped department, including a rock-crushing lab in which a student was separating minerals from a sample in a homemade dust control tent Mahoney made with 2-by-4s, sheets of plastic and duct tape.

“There is a lot of dust in the air, so we’re talking about the health of students,” Mahoney said, maintaining that a new building would be safer and more efficient for students. “This building is an absolute disaster area.”

Among other challenges Phillips presents for students and faculty, Mahoney pointed out missing and stained ceiling tiles near the main entrance where the roof leaks and mentioned that a lack of convenient storage space forces the department to store rock samples in a stairwell, a garage and a basement area accessible only by climbing over pipes.

GOP Reps. Rob Summerfield of Bloomer and Jesse James of Altoona also joined Tuesday’s tour and expressed support for the project.

“I hope this informative event and tour gives this construction project the momentum it needs to be approved,” Summerfield said, noting that the potential benefits of the project outweigh the cost.

James said the tour made clear the building’s many problems and promised that area legislators would make a strong case for funding its replacement.

When asked why Democrats weren’t invited, Summerfield said the event was organized by Republicans and that local GOP legislators are the ones who are going to have to make the case to members of their caucus. Republicans control the Assembly and the Senate.

State Sen. Jeff Smith, D-town of Brunswick, said he and Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, also have toured Phillips and pledged to work with lawmakers from both parties to push for the project’s approval. He highlighted a commitment from Mayo Clinic Health System to financially support the project, which would strengthen the organization’s research agreement with UW-Eau Claire.

“This is just a huge opportunity, not just for Eau Claire but for the Chippewa Valley and all of Wisconsin, that Mayo Clinic wants to plant their research and development right there on this campus,” Smith said. “This is the kind of opportunity that comes once in a lifetime, and we’ve got to take advantage of it.”

Affordable housing initiatives get priority in CDBG applications

Initiatives involving affordable housing will get higher priority than other proposals for Eau Claire’s share of Community Development Block Grants this year, according to the city manger.

During a Tuesday night work session on affordable housing, Dale Peters told the City Council that message has been sent to organizations that usually seek some U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds bound for Eau Claire.

“We wanted to give higher priority to projects that focus on or work toward affordable housing,” Peters said.

Agencies could begin considering their applications for CDBG money last month and the city will consider them in spring. The grant funds become available in late summer.

Keith Johnathan, executive director of the Eau Claire Housing Authority, said while federal officials haven’t said how much the city will get in CDBG money, he expects it to be about $525,000 as it has been in recent years.

The city has usually kept a large share of the grant money in prior years to boost housing code enforcement, provide home rehabilitation loans, help residents with asbestos removal and lead paint remediation. But a portion has also gone toward local domestic abuse and homeless shelters, The Community Table, the Eau Claire Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association, Western Dairyland and other community organizations.

Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle said the city may choose to keep more of the CDBG money this year for its push to address affordable housing and provide less to the outside organizations.

“That would be a huge shift,” she said, “but these are all items that would be qualifying expenses.”

Peters and other top staffers presented a two-year work plan on Tuesday to the council about measures the city intends to take to address a shortage of affordable housing in Eau Claire.

City officials picked their plan from a list of ideas that a regional housing task force came up with after about eight months of study.

“It’s now timely to talk about what we want to do,” Peters said.

He presented a list of about 22 suggestions the city intends to undertake in the next two years. They included evaluating building fee and zoning requirements, leading renter and homeowner education programs, launching a citizens input group, conducting a housing survey, identifying land for new housing and educational efforts to help developers learn more about affordable housing.

“There are local developers who want to make an effort and try those different things but haven’t had the experience before,” said Scott Allen, the city’s community development director.

The council will be asked in late March to set goals and priorities for the city’s affordable housing efforts, Peters said.

“Having those higher-level, longer-range goals will be very helpful,” he said.