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Chancellor James Schmidt said replacing “vastly outdated” Phillips Hall has been his top priority since he first visited UW-Eau Claire, and advocating for state funding of the new science building was a top priority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.