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Eau Claire's Haymarket Plaza opens

Josh Treankler had seen Haymarket Plaza take shape in his frequent walks through downtown.

The waterfront spot has gotten paved pathways, stone seating, raised planters and landscaping in recent months, but he saw something new poking up from the ground at midday Tuesday.

Shooting up like little geysers from the ground, spurts of water randomly rose from fountainheads buried in the center of the plaza.

“This is quite the surprise,” said Treankler of Eau Claire.

He unleashed the two young boys he was baby-sitting into the fountain area, giving them a chance to play as the water shot up around them so they could cool off as the summer sun was beating down.

Save for a short test last month, Tuesday was the debut of the Haymarket Plaza fountain as part of the grand opening ceremony for the public gathering spot located just south of where the Eau Claire River joins the Chippewa River.

“This plaza is truly the result of an entire city coming together,” city engineer David Solberg said.

He and other city officials who spoke at a noon ribbon-cutting thanked residents who contributed ideas for the plaza, City Council members who supported the project and a host of contractors hired to carry out the work.

All included — the plaza itself, a bolstered riverfront retaining wall, the recreational trail bordering the site and a pedestrian bridge connected to Phoenix Park — the entire cost was about $5 million, according to Solberg.

Council President Terry Weld called the plaza Eau Claire’s “newest treasure.” He thanked his predecessors — former council President Kerry Kincaid and acting council President Andrew Werthmann — and others who served on the council that pushed the project along.

Solberg reflected on the location’s history back when it was bustling with activity during downtown’s heyday, but spent more recent decades as a deteriorating parking lot.

Despite the crumbling asphalt there, he said some saw potential in the waterfront location.

In May 2012, the private-public redevelopment effort called the Confluence Project was announced.

Previously home to older business buildings and the underused public parking, the trio of downtown lots now has an arts center, student housing, new storefronts and the city plaza.

Completed in fall 2016, the six-story Haymarket Landing building has apartments for 400 UW-Eau Claire students and ground floor commercial space that now includes a gym, fitness studio, an ice cream shop and a large space slated to host a Foxconn innovation center. In September, the Pablo Center at the Confluence opened its doors and recently reported its inaugural season a success with audience turnout exceeding forecasts.

Almost seven years in office, Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle is among those who have long supported the Confluence Project, including the city plaza.

“You may know there were a few challenges and opportunities that met at this confluence,” she said to a crowd of local business and civic leaders gathered for the ribbon-cutting.

Emmanuelle acknowledged public debates over the plaza early in its conception, but she feels the end result will have a positive impact on the city for many years.

More recent challenges facing the plaza had to deal with its construction.

If there were two more weeks of decent weather last year, Solberg said the plaza could’ve been finished and open in autumn as the city had originally planned. Following a brutal winter, work resumed on the plaza but was occasionally hampered by spring storms that left the ground wet while crews had hoped to make more progress on paving.

But Tuesday’s unveiling was good timing for children and adults — including Solberg, Weld and Emmanuelle — who walked through the fountain to cool off.

The city hasn’t yet decided hours of operation for the fountain, but to conserve water it will not be on continuously, Solberg said. He expects it the fountain, which has multicolored lights, will be on intermittently between 10 a.m. and midnight.

And there are some features of the plaza that the city is yet to turn on. Natural gas-fueled flames will poke out of several raised spots in the plaza, but the wiring for that system is still being finished, Solberg said.

Decorative multicolored lighting has been installed on the Haymarket Plaza footbridge and nearby Grand Avenue pedestrian bridge, but Solberg said that system is still being programmed. He said it is still expected to be activated before summer is over.


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Plumbers make needed fixes; trailer homes pass inspection and allowed to remain open

Plumber Ross Kaz wasn’t surprised at the numerous repairs that were needed underneath the trailer homes in Maples Mobile Home Park.

Kaz, owner of Chippewa Falls-based N.L. Stock, was among several plumbers on the scene Tuesday, making fixes that allowed residents to stay in their homes.

“Someone did try to plumb it, but it was glued together, and with duct tape on it,” Kaz said after finishing the job. “We removed all the old pipe, and re-hung it all, with all new hangers.”

Including himself, Kaz said he had three workers at the mobile home park at 1611 Western Ave., and they totaled 16 hours of work, fixing the plumbing on three trailers on Tuesday. He was asked by the Local 434 Plumbers & Steamfitters union to lend his services.

“I thought it was a good deal for the union to step up and help out,” he said.

On June 25, the city determined that six of the 45 trailers in the mobile home park had significantly faulty sewage systems, and if repairs weren’t immediately made, those homes would have to be shut down and vacated.

Russell Boos, a plumber in the union, said that state Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, reached out to him over the weekend. He quickly agreed to line up the help to fix the homes.

“This was going to get closed down today,” Boos said. “We don’t want to see people booted out of their homes, with nowhere to live.”

Boos estimated that a dozen plumbers combined to perform 40 to 45 hours of labor between Monday and Tuesday. Parts, permits and labor totaled between $4,500 and $5,000, he said.

“It was pretty major stuff, with the smell of raw sewage,” Boos said. “We had several issues from leaking sewage, from broken mains to leaking pipes, and there was some poor installation.”

All six trailers that were repaired passed city inspection Tuesday morning.

Emerson said she got involved in looking at issues at the trailer park a year ago and has attended community meetings about the problems there.

“The main thing we had to deal with was the raw sewage,” Emerson said. “They were struggling to find a contractor.”

Emerson praised the plumbers who showed up to make the last-minute fixes.

“They didn’t disappoint me; they came out in full force, to make sure people didn’t lose their homes,” Emerson said. “This is what community is about.”

It is unclear how and if the plumbers will get paid.

“We’ll try to get the owners to pay for it first,” Emerson said.

However, Emerson said the repairs are just a band-aid on a much bigger problem.

“There are some serious safety issues here,” she said.

A gofundme.com fundraiser also has been established to help pay the bill, she said. However, that has only generated $160 as of Tuesday afternoon.

Emily Shields has lived in the mobile home park for the past two years, and has served as property manager since February. Shields said at times this spring and early summer, the smell of raw sewage was pungent throughout the community.

“It was leaking, and it was really bad,” she said. “Fixes aren’t being done the right way, and that was an issue. You can’t continue to let people stay in these conditions.”

Shields said that last winter, 18 tenants had busted pipes and no heat.

“These trailers won’t make it through another rough winter,” she said.

Six of the 45 trailers in the park are privately owned; the rest pay roughly $340 per month in rent, she said. Not only is that far less expensive than other housing options in Eau Claire, many of the residents simply don’t have better options, she added.

“Most of the people out here do have criminal convictions, who can’t find other housing,” Shields explained. “A lot have prior evictions. They don’t have other options. They say, ‘if we get shut down, we will be homeless.’”


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More state funding projected for area schools

Several Chippewa Valley school districts are projected to receive more state financial aid than last year.

In preliminary numbers released Monday by the state Department of Public Instruction, the Eau Claire school district would get $2.4 million more general state aid for the 2019-20 school year than in 2018-19, or an increase of about 4%.

The Altoona school district would get about 2% more state aid, the Menomonie school district would get about 7% more and the Chippewa Falls school district would get over 4% more, according to the DPI.

But a jump in state aid doesn’t necessarily mean those school districts will have more money to spend next year.

“When there’s an increase in general state aid, that offsets any property tax increases to taxpayers,” said Eau Claire schools Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck.

“We’re limited in what we can spend … so when there’s more state aid, taxes go down, and when there’s less state aid taxes go up.”

However, Hardebeck is hesitant to predict if 2019-20 property taxes will shrink because of the additional state aid.

“I think it’s a little early to speculate,” she said. “We’ll have to see once the governor acts on it.”

According to a two-year budget plan passed by the Republican-controlled state Legislature, the state has allocated $4.74 billion in general school aid for the 2019-20 year — a 1.8%, or $83.2 million, increase over last year.

As of Tuesday, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers was still reviewing the two-year budget; the Legislature sent it to the governor’s desk on June 28.

Evers originally asked for $1.4 billion for K-12 schools over the next two years. Republicans’ plan, approved in May, cut the proposal to $500 million, and included nearly $100 million more for special education.

The Republican plan would increase per-pupil funding by $200 the first year and by $204 the second year.

Per-pupil funding is based on student membership from the 2019-20, 2018-19 and 2017-18 school years. It would be paid in March 2020, according to the DPI.

Eau Claire

The Eau Claire district was hoping for a small increase, but Hardebeck said it didn’t count on one, because the number may change after Evers reviews the proposed budget.

The district passed a $142.7 million budget in October 2018, a plan that was estimated to create a $3.1 million deficit, according to Leader-Telegram records.

But the district won’t know until mid-August if the 2018-19 deficit actually hit the $3 million mark, Hardebeck said.

Altoona

For Altoona schools, a bump in state aid of almost 2% would mean an additional $204,481.

The district budgeted for a small increase, “but it’s a little more than what I expected,” the district’s business manager Mike Markgren said of the projected 2 percent increase.

Markgren expects the aid increase to slightly lower property taxes. “It definitely helps, and it should get our mill rate under $10 per $1,000 (of equalized value), which would be nice,” he said.

The district had a balanced 2018-19 budget — Markgren expects to hit a budgeted $130,000 surplus for that year — and anticipates a balanced budget again in 2019-20.

Markgren said he’s interested to see how education dollars in the final state budget are distributed.

“That has more impact than the preliminary figures,” he said. “Per-pupil funding for next year … that’s why that’s a little more of a concern.”

Chippewa Falls

According to the preliminary numbers, the Chippewa Falls school district would get 4.4% more state aid for 2019-20, a bump of about $1.3 million.

“The more money it means for us, the less property tax we have to levy,” said district business manager Chad Trowbridge. “I always see that as a win for our taxpayers.”

The district’s $59.4 million budget for 2018-19 was balanced, and Trowbridge expects a balanced budget for the next school year. “I think we’re in good shape,” he said.

Menomonie

According to the preliminary numbers, the Menomonie school district would get over 7% more state aid for 2019-20, a bump of $1.4 million.

“Our school board made some wise decisions last year in terms of paying down debt and saving for capital projects, which has allowed us to maximize our state aid,” said district Superintendent Joe Zydowsky.

Zydowsky is anticipating a balanced budget for 2019-20, like the previous year’s budget.

“We’re cautiously optimistic our budget is in good shape,” Zydowsky said. “We’ll continue to be sensitive to the tax impact for district residents.”

Most regional school districts could be looking at more state aid for next year; three are projected to see a decrease, according to preliminary numbers from the DPI:

  • Augusta:
  • 13.03% increase of $455,593.
  • Bloomer:
  • 3.42% increase of $290,507.
  • Boyceville:
  • 3.28% decrease of $171,254.
  • Cadott:
  • 7.64% increase of $461,188.
  • Colfax:
  • 0.99% decrease of $55,135.
  • Cornell:
  • 1.18% increase of $32,428.
  • Eleva-Strum:
  • 2.83% increase of $126,288.
  • Elk Mound:
  • 0.31% increase of $25,503.
  • Fall Creek:
  • 7.32% increase of $392,187.
  • Mondovi:
  • 5.61% increase of $360,539.
  • Osseo-Fairchild:
  • 3.72% decrease of $232,983.
  • Stanley-Boyd:
  • 1.02% increase of $78,895.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.