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Eau Claire City Council president candidates debate

The two candidates running in the April 2 election for Eau Claire City Council president faced questions on their leadership styles, policy achievements and even the city’s recent battle against heavy snowfalls during a Thursday night forum.

Acting council President Andrew Werthmann, who represents a district including downtown and the East Side Hill neighborhood, and at-large Councilman Terry Weld spoke to about 60 people gathered to hear them debate at Chippewa Valley Technical College.

Werthmann began by citing the city’s progress in job creation and economic growth in the past decade, but added that “at the same time wages are not keeping pace.”

Addressing poverty is a keystone of Werthmann’s campaign, and he told the crowd at the forum the council president needs to take bold actions and show dynamic leadership to “build an Eau Claire that lifts everyone up.”

Weld viewed the president’s job as leading the council — not steering it — to encourage independent thinking among members and deter alliance-building. Casting himself as a moderate, Weld said the city council designed by state law to be nonpartisan has not been that way lately.

“Our council is not nonpartisan,” Weld said. “We are spending a lot of time and effort on initiatives that in my opinion are not representing the entire community.”

Werthman contended political leanings are not the primary concern for the city.

“The issue in our community is not partisanship,” he said. “It’s that we have people barely getting by.”

But Werthmann did note that under his leadership, an open comment period was added earlier this year to Monday night meetings, allowing people of all viewpoints a chance to speak to city officials.

“Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican you have the opportunity to come down and share with us,” he said.

Werthmann has lead the council as acting president since June after longtime president Kerry Kincaid resigned. The April 2 election is for a one-year term — the remainder of Kincaid’s unexpired term.

Winter parking, budget changes

Candidates had to address whether winter parking rules changed in 2015 have been good, given how recent snowfalls have led to tall snowbanks that have narrowed driving lanes on streets.

“I’m proud of the changes that we made to alternate-side parking,” Werthmann said.

The city’s old rules requiring alternate-side parking every night from November through April resulted in unnecessary fines on nice spring days, often to people with homes that lacked a garage or adequate off-street parking.

“In reality this was a tax on being poor,” he said of the old parking policy.

Werthmann commended the city’s plow drivers for the jobs they’ve done this winter.

Weld noted the challenge the city has faced with a harsh winter.

“We’ve had a long five weeks, obviously, with historic snowfalls,” he said.

He noted there has been a learning curve since the policy was changed about 3½ years ago for residents so they know which side of the street they should park their cars after snowstorms.

But he also attributed some of this winter’s plowing problems to $25,000 taken away from parking enforcement during last fall’s budget talks, which went toward a new initiative. Werthmann defended that funding shift because the money is going toward a program to get residents involved in deciding how a portion of the city’s budget will be spent.

Multiple times during the forum, Werthmann spoke in support of another change to the city budget that added library positions intended to help the homeless population and literacy in at-risk youth.

However, Weld criticized how the amendment creating those two positions didn’t get a public discussion and arrived with little notice to the council.

“What we saw in the eleventh hour as was mentioned was not necessary,” he said. “It didn’t have to be that way.”

Pushing policies

The candidates were asked about three policies they’d initiated on council, which caught Weld at a disadvantage as he’s been in office for a little less than two years. He did note that he had pushed for a discounted bus fare specifically for lower-income residents. He also said that his time on council has been spent trying to create compromises.

Werthmann, who’s served for about a decade on council, cited a policy early in his tenure that gave city workers in same-sex relationships the same employee benefits as heterosexual couples. Two other policies he said he’s proud of is creation of the city’s Sustainability Advisory Committee and greatly reducing the fine for possession of a small amount of marijuana.

Evers announces backing for new UW-EC science building

With many worthy building projects vying for state funding, Gov. Tony Evers said Thursday that a proposed new science building at UW-Eau Claire is “one of those projects that rises to the top.”

The newly elected Democratic governor was in Eau Claire Thursday morning to announce that his capital budget will include a $109 million investment to help UW-Eau Claire replace 56-year-old Phillips Science Hall with a new science and health sciences building. He made the announcement in a Phillips classroom packed full of regional business and community leaders, who greeted him with a standing ovation.

Chancellor James Schmidt said replacing “vastly outdated” Phillips Hall has been his top priority since he first visited UW-Eau Claire, and advocating 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 area.

Evers maintained the project, a collaboration with Mayo Clinic, would ensure UW-Eau Claire’s ability to maintain world-class research and teaching in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and health sciences fields.

“This partnership embodies what we believe the Wisconsin Idea is all about, benefiting not only students but the communities they serve in after they graduate from UW-Eau Claire,” said Evers, a former science teacher. “The state’s investment will leverage taxpayer dollars to support the Chippewa Valley’s emergence as a health care innovation hub, while also investing in a visionary campus that is tackling some of the most pressing health care and technology issues facing rural Wisconsinites.”

University officials are seeking to have $256 million included in the state’s next two biennial budgets for the new science building, beginning with $109 million in the 2019-21 budget. The UW System Board of Regents already voted in August to support the project.

The next challenges are to gain approval from the state Building Commission, the Joint Finance Committee and the full Republican-controlled Legislature. The project has earned strong bipartisan support from Chippewa Valley lawmakers.

“I think our entire capital budget looks like it’s going to be in good shape,” Evers said, expressing confidence that funding for the UW-Eau Claire project will be approved.

State Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, said she is “cautiously optimistic” that funding for the new science building will make it through the budget process, especially after getting an enthusiastic response from Joint Finance Committee co-chair Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, when discussing the project Wednesday.

Sen. Jeff Smith, D-town of Brunswick, and Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, issued a joint statement applauding the governor’s support for the UW-Eau Claire project.

“With the new science hall proposal, our facilities will now be able to meet the needs and help prepare students for the careers of tomorrow without the burden of facilities that were built in a time when a computer took up an entire room,” Emerson said. “Our community deserves to have students trained in the latest technologies and we can’t continue to do that with an outdated building.”

Phillips is plagued by many deficiencies, including cramped quarters, outdated design, costly maintenance, roof leaks and infiltration by mice, bats and insects, university officials have said. Schmidt indicated replacing Phillips with a state-of-the-art facility would advance the university’s reputation for doing important research and help attract more high-quality students and faculty to campus, which would help address the talent shortage plaguing many Chippewa Valley businesses.

“We think this new building will be nothing short of transformational,” Schmidt said, adding that it has the potential to make UW-Eau Claire the biomedical hub for Wisconsin and the Midwest.

Student body president Branden Yates shared a story about talking to a science student about conducting an experiment in Phillips. Yates said the student told him everything works out well as long as bats don’t interrupt the work, eliciting laughs from the audience.

“This is clearly not a conducive learning environment to match the world-class research that is done in this building,” Yates said. “We can do better.”

Dave Minor, president of the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce, said the investment in education will be important not only for workforce development, but also for helping the Chippewa Valley continue its recent renaissance.

Dr. Richard Helmers, CEO of Mayo Clinic Health System’s northwest Wisconsin region, called it “an incredibly exciting thing when one thinks about training the health care workforce of the future and research scientists as we go forward.”

“We strongly support this project and again want to thank everybody for continuing to advance this so we can provide the best care that we can for people in western Wisconsin,” Helmers said.

Mayo Clinic has pledged to seek philanthropic contributions totaling $13.7 million for the project, which will allow its researchers to work alongside UW-Eau Claire students and faculty, said Mike Rindo, the university’s assistant chancellor for facilities and university relations.

Evers said the partnership will help Wisconsin recruit physicians and researchers eager to be involved in the creation of new knowledge and a new facility will ensure northwestern Wisconsin has state-of-the-art research capabilities to support entrepreneurship in health care fields while educating the next generation of doctors and nurses.

If funding for the new science building is approved as proposed, Rindo said, construction could begin as soon as 2023 and the building could open in 2025 at the lower campus location now occupied by Katharine Thomas and Putnam residence halls.

Wintermission Eau Claire aims to better connect people during winter months

Huge snow piles courtesy of record snowfall, arctic temperatures and little daylight this time of year are enough to get anyone down, but backers of a new effort hope to improve Eau Claire residents’ perception of winter.

On Thursday morning city residents gathered at L.E. Phillips Senior Center, 1616 Bellinger St., to learn about the endeavor and to solicit opinions about winter activities or amenities they would like to see to beat the winter blahs in Eau Claire.

The initiative, titled Wintermission Eau Claire, seeks to change people’s opinions about winter, from enduring the season known for cold and snow to providing opportunities to appreciate it. It also aims to create means of better connecting people during the winter to boost social connectivity and happiness.

“The idea is really to shift the mentality from winter being something we just get through to something we find ways to enjoy,” said David Simor, project manager with Toronto-based 8 80 Cities, a nonprofit that seeks to facilitate safe, accessible cities for all residents.

Wintermission Eau Claire is backed by a number of local entities, including city government, UW-Eau Claire, Visit Eau Claire and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. The project is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Colleen Goodspeed acknowledged that harsh winter weather, especially the heavy snows and bitter cold that has gripped western Wisconsin in recent weeks, dampens people’s spirits.

“The kind of weather we’ve had lately, it makes it tough,” the 62-year-old Eau Claire resident said, noting snowy and icy walkways make getting from place to place difficult, especially for senior citizens or others with mobility issues.

Others attending the event said they appreciate the effort intended to provide ways to better connect citizens during winter months when they tend to hunker down inside and be more isolated than during warmer times of the year. Some people wrote down ideas for doing so and affixed them to several Wintermission display boards set up at the senior center amid people playing card games.

“Staying connected to others during the winter is more difficult,” 71-year-old Hazel Green of Eau Claire said. “A lot of us come down here to the senior center, but maybe there are other things that can be done for us and the younger people.”

Goodspeed offered up the possibility of walking groups who might take organized trips to various restaurants or other businesses together as one means of boosting togetherness during winter. Doing so would require the clearing of walking routes of snow and ice, she said.

“We have a lot of opportunities in the summer here, but we need more of them in the winter,” Goodspeed said.

Nordic nations such as Denmark, Norway and Sweden have adopted winter city guidelines that include such ideas as prioritizing walkways to facilitate people getting out to spend time with each other. Those places also put on events such as outdoor cafes at which citizens enjoy food and drink while dining outside in winter.

“The idea is we want to be a great place for all four seasons,” said Heather Smith, regional economic development director for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. “Let’s embrace winter. Let’s enjoy it.”

Oftentimes Midwesterners look forward to spring during winter months instead of appreciating the season for what it offers, said Scott Allen, community development director for the city of Eau Claire who is involved with Wintermission.

“We always hear ‘think spring,’ “ Allen said. “Why are we ignoring winter?”

In addition to changing the negative perception of winter, Wintermission aims to connect with people of all socioeconomic groups. Backers of the effort are reaching out specifically to the Eau Claire Hmong and Latino communities.

“What are the barriers we need to address among different groups of people?” Allen said. “That is something we are working to get.”

Creating a more winter-friendly environment can be as simple as creating attractive lighting, he said, noting the city could build on efforts such as the Phoenix Park Bridge that is lit at night.

Wintermission discussions continued Thursday at a meeting at the Altoona Public Library and later during the evening during the Winter After Hours event at Pinehurst Park on the city’s north side. The event serves as an example of the kind of outdoors activity that could enhance residents’ enjoyment of winter here, Allen said, and could become more commonplace in the future.

“Is that the kind of idea we can expand into other parks?” he said. “That is the kind of idea we hope to take a look at.”