‘We did it!”

With those three words, Jason Jon Anderson, executive director of Pablo Center at the Confluence, kicked off a celebration of the seven years of effort that made Saturday’s grand opening of the $60 million downtown arts center possible.

The ceremony was full of pomp and circumstance, with a long list of speakers expressing their thanks to the community leaders, workers, donors, dreamers and residents who made it happen, followed by a trumpet fanfare and rousing music from the UW-Eau Claire Blugold Marching Band echoing across the unfinished Haymarket Plaza next door.

“Wow! What a beautiful building,” said Jerry Jacobson, chairman of the Eau Claire Confluence Arts Board, as the sun glinted off the Chippewa River flowing just outside the multicolored windows behind him. “It’s going to be the centerpiece of Eau Claire and the Chippewa Valley for generations.”

But the biggest test came after the ceremonial introduction. That’s when members of the public got their first glimpse inside the three-story, 142,000-square-foot structure. 

The first reviews — gasps, smiles and exclamations of wonder — made it clear the building’s debut was a smashing success.

“Oh, my! This is something,” said Greg Kittelson of Eau Claire as he walked in the door and saw the lobby with its colorful dangling lights and three-story glass windows overlooking the Chippewa River. 

“Now that it’s done, this is going to be good for Eau Claire and good for the economy,” said Kittelson, who looks forward to attending Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild and Eau Claire Children’s Theatre productions in the facility and is excited to see Randy Bachman perform Jan. 19. “It’s a beautiful place and will help Eau Claire compete with the Twin Cities.”

‘Work of art’

Deb Blake of Eau Claire, who interrupted her enjoyment of art exhibits in the facility’s James W. Hansen Gallery to take photos of the panoramic views of the Chippewa River just outside the windows, was equally effusive in her praise of the Pablo Center’s striking modern design.

“I’m in shock. I feel like I’m in New York City,” said Blake, who has experience acting, playing music and working on set design for local theater productions since she moved to the community in 1983.  “This building is a work of art as much as the performing arts that will take place here.”

Asha Sen of Eau Claire called the building “very inspiring” and said she is thrilled Eau Claire has such an impressive venue.

Kirk Jansen, who was originally from Eau Claire but moved to Portland, Ore., for several years, said he and his wife returned to Eau Claire about four years ago in part because of the city’s revitalized downtown and their eagerness to be a part of the city’s thriving arts scene.

  “We’re just so excited there’s a space like this that finally helps accommodate all the energy there’s been in Eau Claire these last few years,” said Jansen, who already has purchased tickets to several musical acts booked at the Pablo Center.

Even Jim Schansberg, who has seen a lot while performing with the Eau Claire Male Chorus for more than 40 years, found the new building breathtaking as his group, all donning bright red sport coats, was the first to sing at the venue.

“It’s an amazing, amazing structure,” Schansberg said. “For our group to be the first to perform here was quite an honor.”  

Rivers flowing

Such comments were music to the ears of Malcolm Holzman, the lead architect on the project from Holzman Moss Bottino Architecture of New York, who said he hoped to design a building that would be memorable for performers and guests.

“I was trying to reflect the community’s ambitions as well as the surroundings,” Holzman said, pointing to the wavy pattern of the lobby’s tile floor, intended to invoke the feeling of the two rivers flowing just outside the arts center’s walls.  

The Pablo Center includes the 1,229-seat RCU Theatre and 404-seat Jamf Theatre that will replace downtown’s 92-year-old State Theatre and UW-Eau Claire’s 66-year-old Kjer Theatre, both of which are considered obsolete. The new arts center also contains a dance studio, art galleries, a recording studio, rehearsal spaces, classrooms, labs and offices for UW-Eau Claire’s theater program. Plans call for it to host UW-Eau Claire performances and exhibits as well as other concerts, performances and Broadway-style touring shows that no other regional campus or community previously could support.

The facility was made possible by public-private partnerships among UW-Eau Claire, the UW-Eau Claire Foundation, the city of Eau Claire, Eau Claire County, the Eau Claire Regional Arts Council, Visit Eau Claire, the state of Wisconsin and private partners. Funding sources included $5 million from the city, $3.5 million from the county, $15 million from the state, $3 million in new market tax credits and $33.5 million from philanthropy and other sources.

UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt told opening-day guests the project is an example of how multiple groups came together to build something bigger and better than any of them could have done on their own. It’s also an example, he said, of how even a small town can think big.

“Most importantly, we celebrate today not the brick and mortar, but a community that can come together, that can collectively accomplish anything we put our mind to,” Schmidt said.

Drawing a crowd

Hundreds of people lined the newly opened Confluence Crossing Bridge and the completed eastern edge of Haymarket Plaza — along with several UW-Eau Claire students on the second-floor balcony of the Haymarket Landing building that makes up the rest of the Confluence Project —  on Saturday to soak up the sun, listen to the Blugold Marching Band and see Jacobson and Vicki Hoehn, chairwoman of the Confluence Council, cut a giant blue ribbon to mark a major moment in Eau Claire history.  

Brenna St. George Jones, Pablo Center’s director of artistic programming, said the reception from the public, on a picture-perfect first day of fall, “exceeded our wildest expectations.” 

“It’s like we’re having a party with a couple thousand of our best friends,” she said, stressing that Pablo Center officials wanted to host a free opening event to set the tone for the facility as a place that is accessible and open to everyone.

After the festivities, the Pablo Center was open for the public to explore throughout the afternoon, and thousands of area residents took advantage of the opportunity to see the new jewel of downtown Eau Claire on its first day. As musicians and dancers performed, throngs of people wandered around the halls, classrooms, galleries, performance spaces and lobby to get a firsthand look at a project local leaders expect to propel the city’s creative economy to new heights.

A favorite spot among many attendees was a third-floor section of the lobby — named the Dan Clumpner Concourse in honor of the Commonweal Development official who was a driving force behind the Confluence Project and died just three weeks before the Pablo Center opened — offering unprecedented views of Phoenix Park and the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers.  

“I’m very impressed. This is a gorgeous view,” said Denise Madland of the town of Brunswick, who biked into town for the occasion. 

Madland and two biking buddies toured the arts center and felt a sense of pride Saturday that they had made small donations to support the project.

“We wanted it to succeed,” she said.

Group effort

Several speakers highlighted Clumpner’s leadership as they traced the public-private partnership’s long journey from dream to reality.  

“To me, it signals the true power of what is possible in our community when we stand together and when we work together,” said Andrew Werthmann, acting president of the Eau Claire City Council. 

State Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, pointed to the bipartisan effort it took for area legislators to persuade the Legislature to approve $15 million in state funding for the project. State Rep. Warren Petryk, R-town of Pleasant Valley, added that it took hundreds of phone calls and meetings to reach that point. All agreed the effort was worth it.

“As a professional artist and entertainer for the past almost 50 years, it delights me to imagine the sights and the sounds that will occur in these spaces,” said Petryk, who performs with the Memories.

“Cabinet of Curiosities,” scheduled Saturday night in the RCU Theatre, was the first of roughly 300 event days — unique shows in one of the two theaters — already booked for the Pablo Center’s first season. 

UW-Eau Claire associate professor of English and author B.J. Hollars, founder of the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild, reminded attendees of the importance of the arts in enriching people’s lives.

“We all need this place because art is not a luxury but an essential part of a human life,” Hollars said. “Today we reaffirm our commitment to one another.”

Contact: 715-833-9209, eric.lindquist@ecpc.com, @ealscoop on Twitter