As contention stirred over its request to rename a portion of Eau Claire’s riverfront land, a veterans foundation called up Altoona officials to see if it could relocate its $2.2 million project there.
And on Monday morning, the Eau Claire County Veterans Foundation announced that after about two years of planning to build along Forest Street in Eau Claire along a bank of the Chippewa River, it will instead be going east to Altoona’s River Prairie development.
“We have found this move to be in the best interest of the project and those who we represent as we have been welcomed without bias or agenda,” stated the letter signed by the foundation’s eight trustees.
The move also is financially prudent, the group noted, as River Prairie already has infrastructure — paved trails, outdoor lighting, parking and public restrooms — that the foundation would’ve had to build in Eau Claire’s Forest Street Special Area.
“What’s nice is we already have a beautiful trail along the (Eau Claire River) they can put their monuments along,” Altoona city Administrator Michael Golat said.
The foundation contacted Altoona a couple of weeks ago to talk about the potential to relocate the project there, he said.
“We were honored they thought of us,” Golat said, adding that the City Council is supportive of paying tribute to people who have served.
The trail would be in River Prairie’s northwest quadrant, which is home to restaurants, several other businesses, a hotel, apartment buildings, a park, a banquet center and an amphitheater that hosts summer concerts.
“It’s another cool thing they’d be able to see at River Prairie,” Golat said.
In plans previously approved by Eau Claire, the tribute will include monuments marking every major war from the Civil War to the present, a memorial for Old Abe — the war eagle that joined local troops, a gathering plaza with pavers engraved with names of area veterans, a fountain recognizing those who were prisoners of war or missing in action, flags for each branch of the military and a spot recognizing Gold Star families.
On Monday afternoon, Golat met with foundation members at River Prairie to talk about potential spots for the monuments along the existing trail and areas where the gathering plaza could be built.
While the project had proceeded smoothly through planning and design in Eau Claire, it encountered opposition in recent weeks when the group sought to rename what is now known as the Forest Street Special area as Veterans Tribute Park.
Gardeners and members of the North River Fronts Neighborhood Association spoke out against the name applying to the entire 16.8-acre area swath of land, which includes the Forest Street Community Gardens. Those pleas were heard by the County Board, which opted last month in an 18-8 vote to postpone giving its support for the park name change.
In that majority was county Supervisor Brandon Buchanan, who emailed a statement Monday to area media outlets that praised the veterans tribute, but criticized the project’s organizers.
“It is clear to me that the Veterans Tribute is a good idea, but it is being done by the wrong people,” he wrote. “One cannot honor veterans by dishonoring and ignoring the very people veterans fought and died to protect.”
The foundation pinned blame for the naming controversy on local elected officials for focusing on special interests.
“If the decision makers, whose capacity was given to them by the people, would have truly listened, there would be no controversy surrounding the name of a venue meant to honor and hold these stories as sacred,” the foundation wrote.
The letter also apologized to local veterans for being put through public hearings where “stories of service, sacrifice and loss have fallen on ears deafened by personal agendas and political motivations.”
After a heated public hearing, the city’s Waterways & Parks Commission voted 7-3 last month to not rename the park, recommending that parties on all sides of the issue meet to discuss the name.
The Eau Claire City Council hosted a public hearing on July 8 that lasted a few hours as people shared opinions on the park naming request. Foundation vice president Angela Deutschlander said at the meeting that the group only intended for the name to apply to the portion of the park with the veterans tribute. However, the application for the name change encompassed the entire park and city Manager Dale Peters advised against carving up the area so it could have multiple names.
A week ago, the council granted a two-week delay the foundation had requested on the naming decision so it could explore its options.
Councilwoman Emily Berge said Monday that she’s disappointed in the change of plans after many months of work, but is glad that veterans will have a place to be honored in the area.
“Despite this sudden change of events, I remain in support of the Veterans Tribute project. In the end, this is about having a tribute to our local veterans to honor their service,” she said in an emailed statement to media.
Down the road
The foundation did thank Eau Claire city staff for help in the planning process, offering them engineering plans for the trail itself so they might be able to be used in some way in the future.
In addition to a gathering space for veterans events and educating the general public, the project would’ve made several improvements viewed as beneficial for all users of the Forest Street Special Area. That included a paved trail through the site connected to other recreational trails, outdoor lighting, permanent restrooms and paving a gravel parking lot just south of the city’s Central Maintenance Facility.
Without a private group providing funding for those amenities, community services director Jeff Pippenger said they will take much longer.
“We’re talking about many years out for that,” he said, noting they’re not currently in the city’s five-year plan.
The Forest Street corridor is still slated to see some improvement this summer though with a road project stretching about four blocks from East Madison Street to Huyssen Street.
Driven to replace buried water pipes more than a century old, that road project includes widening the sidewalk along the west side of the street into a 9½-foot-wide recreational trail and also painting a bike lane on the street. The City Council is slated to review bid prices for that road work next month so it could be completed before winter weather arrives, city engineer David Solberg said.
Getting it in writing
Though Monday’s letter made the veterans foundation’s intent to move to Altoona clear, there are some agreements that will need to be worked out.
The county government’s agreement to donate $450,000 to the veterans tribute project between this year and 2020 will be revisited.
“The board will have to act on amending the agreement because it stipulates working specifically with the city of Eau Claire,” county Administrator Kathryn Schauf said.
While Schauf was among the officials to receive the foundation’s letter on Monday, she said the county still will need a written request from the group to amend the pact based on the tribute’s new location. And the County Board will then have to vote on that updated agreement.
Altoona is drafting a memorandum of understanding — a conceptual agreement for the project — that could go to its City Council for consideration as early as next week, Golat said. When more details are nailed down, a follow-up agreement also will need to be signed, he said.
The veterans foundation is working through more of those details on how the design and construction schedule will be affected by the new site. The group has pledged to give another update on the project later this week.