RIVER FALLS — One by one, supporters of building projects at campuses in River Falls and Eau Claire made their case Monday to members of the Wisconsin Legislature’s budget-writing committee.
The panel, which will reshape Gov. Tony Evers’ budget, held an all-day hearing April 15 at UW-River Falls’ University Center, where columns of speakers lined up to offer support and opposition to budget proposals.
Two building projects received long turns in the spotlight during the hearing — one for UW-River Falls, the other for UW-Eau Claire.
Mark Tyler, president of St. Croix County-based OEM Fabricators and an ex-officio member of the UW Board of Regents, said the region has made strides in science- and technology-based fields, especially through the Northwest Wisconsin Engineering Consortium, which taps the River Falls, Eau Claire and UW-Stout campuses.
“But there’s a missing piece,” he said — campus buildings.
The $111 million River Falls project would construct a new Science and Technology Innovation Center (SciTech) on the grounds where Hagestad Center currently stands. Evers’ budget would fund $1 million of the university’s $4.25 million sought for planning.
UW-River Falls Chancellor Dean Van Galen asked the Joint Finance Committee to fully fund the planning request.
“We want to shape the new type of science building for the future,” he said.
Campus leaders from Eau Claire sought backing to replace the Phillips Science Hall at UW-Eau Claire, which Chancellor James Schmidt called a “Frankenstein building” held together in some areas with duct tape.
He said the new building would house all science disciplines under one roof.
“This investment in northwestern Wisconsin is a core economic infrastructure,” Schmidt told committee members. “This is an expensive building, but it is all of our sciences in one building.”
The $256 million Eau Claire project would construct a new science building on campus. Mayo Clinic Health System has committed $13.7 million toward 10,000 square feet of the building; Mayo Clinic professionals would work side-by-side with students, officials explained at the hearing. UW Board of Regents President John Behling, a UW-River Falls graduate, said the UW-Eau Claire-Mayo Clinic agreement represents the largest single private contribution to a UW-campus building.
Student Regent Ryan Ring, a UW-Eau Claire student from Green Bay, backed the Eau Claire project and asked lawmakers to “make Wisconsin a place for innovation.”
The River Falls and Eau Claire project requests were on the building projects list rejected en masse last month by the Wisconsin Building Commission, but at least one Joint Finance Committee member said that doesn’t mean those projects’ ships are sunk.
Rep. Shannon Zimmerman, R-River Falls, said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the River Falls project funding.
Democrats on the committee said Evers’ budget takes science-related education funding into account.
“Finally we have a governor that’s investing in tech education because we do need new workers,” Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said before the hearing.
Zimmerman said he, Joint Finance Committee Chairman John Nygren and others toured aging facilities on the River Falls campus. The tour created “sincere interest and understanding in terms of what River Falls is after,” he said.
Zimmerman was less optimistic about the Eau Claire project, saying its overall cost may be highlighted by lawmakers.
“I think that because of the size of the lift, it’s going to get extra attention,” especially when taken in the context of Evers’ overall building-project request, Zimmerman said.
Higher education funding was among many topics raised at the hearing.
Attendees packed a ballroom when the panel convened at 10 a.m., with more people streaming in to testify well into the afternoon.
UW-Eau Claire Dean of Nursing Linda Young was one of several people urging lawmakers to back $10 million in funding to address a nursing shortage in Wisconsin.
River Falls Public Library supervisor Heather Johnson reminded lawmakers how state funding has allowed her facility to offer more than books — she cited blood-pressure kits and a 1,000-piece puzzle as examples of check-out material — for community members. She supported a $1.5 million increase in funding for libraries.
School leaders, including superintendents from River Falls and New Richmond, along with Eau Claire School Board member Chris Hambuch-Boyle, urged legislators to support Evers’ education proposal, which includes more money for special education and per-pupil funding.
“We need to offer appropriate benefits and wages to attract and retain,” said River Falls school district Superintendent Jamie Benson.
Attendees also urged lawmakers to support the regional dairy industry, raise the age for vaping and to support arts funding.