The company that has overseen the construction of The Lismore Hotel and the Jamf building and partnered to help build The Oxbow hotel owes its existence in large part to the Confluence Arts Center in downtown Eau Claire. 

So when Pablo Properties partners Zach Halmstad, Julia Johnson and Jason Wudi learned the arts center’s costs had risen by about $13 million, to $60.5 million, they felt compelled to act. 

On Friday the trio announced they are donating $5 million to the arts center, an amount giving them naming rights for the structure scheduled to open in September. The Confluence Arts Center will now be known as Pablo Center at the Confluence. 

That money is made possible by a philanthropic foundation — the Pablo Foundation — the trio formed late last year that is designed to improve the community by directing money and other resources to housing, health, education and the arts. 

“The announcement of the arts center is what really led us to form Pablo Properties,” said Halmstad, co-founder of Jamf, a successful software company started in Eau Claire, “so it seems right that we are able to donate to this project ... This arts center being built is a catalyst for everything that’s going on in downtown Eau Claire.”

 The much-anticipated arts center was announced in May 2012 and for a time faced an uncertain road to becoming the high-quality building designed as a centerpiece of downtown revitalization that is currently taking shape at the merger of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers. 

The structure is the subject of a lawsuit by a group that opposes the process used to fund it and required a referendum by city voters to proceed. The project was made possible by a creative partnership involving UW-Eau Claire, Market & Johnson and Eau Claire builder Commonweal Development Corp. Funding was a struggle at times and combined $15 million in state money, more public money from the city of Eau Claire and Eau Claire County and more than $15 million in private donations. 

Now more money is needed for the project. The most recent cost estimate of about $47 million included the building’s structure but not audio-visual equipment totaling another $6 million as well as lights, furniture and other equipment necessary to stage the kind of high-end shows that have been envisioned at the arts center. 

The Pablo donation covers $5 million of the shortfall, and arts center officials are seeking another $3.5 million in grant money they believe they will receive. That leaves a funding gap of about $4 million, acting arts center executive director Jason Jon Anderson said. 

“There were a lot of numbers not accounted for at first,” Anderson said when asked about the significant cost increase. “We want to end up with a fully functioning arts center that has everything needed to put on really high-quality performances.”

To raise the $4 million, Confluence backers are selling naming rights to different spaces inside the building. Some businesses, such as RCU, Jamf, OakLeaf Surgical Hospital, BMO Harris Bank, Orgel Wealth Management and Market & Johnson have already reserved naming rights by making major gifts between $100,000 and $500,000. Another 27 spaces remain to be bought as part of the fundraising drive, Anderson said. People can also buy theater seats to pledge money to the arts center. 

“The hope is (the Pablo donation) spurs other people to give,” Anderson said. 

Jerry Jacobson, a member of Eau Claire Confluence Arts, the nonprofit that owns the arts center, said he is happy the term “Confluence” will remain part of the building’s name. He said he hopes that name will prompt other businesses located nearby to use that term in their names as well. 

Community focus

The Pablo Foundation, a spin-off of sorts of Pablo Properties, was created by Halmstad, Johnson and Wudi, all of whom are affiliated with Jamf. The $5 million donation is the first step of what the trio said they hope is a way to improve the Chippewa Valley in multiple ways. 

“We are in our infancy right now,” Halmstad said when asked about possible efforts that might be undertaken as part of the foundation. “We’re working through ideas, working as quickly as we can to get off the ground.” 

Johnson said the intent is for the foundation to benefit the community in a number of ways. 

“The overall goal is creating a healthy and sustainable community, to help close opportunity gaps and help individuals be successful,” she said.

Wudi concurred with that notion. “We hope to be able to look back in time and see that we’ve made a positive difference,” he said. 

One way to benefit the community is by investing in the arts, Halmstad said. The arts are “a huge part of the economy in Eau Claire,” he said, and keeping the arts vibrant here helps attract people who can fill jobs and add their skills to the community.

Halmstad noted that Wisconsin ranks 47th of the 50 U.S. states in spending per person on the arts, at 14 cents for each individual, according to 2017 statistics. That figure contrasts sharply with the state’s neighbor to the west, Minnesota, the national leader in that figure at $7.04 per person. 

“Our hope is that we can elevate the visibility of that (discrepancy) by what we are doing here in Eau Claire,” he said. 

Lining it up

Despite the dismissal in October of former arts center executive director Kevin Miller, the arts center is moving closer toward finalizing the schedule for its first year, set to begin with a Sept. 22 opening performance.

Many events have been lined up, Anderson said, and the schedule should be finalized in the next few weeks.      

“I’m very excited about the lineup,” he said. “There are some bigger names and some that people might not be as familiar with ... But all of it will be high-quality.” 

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