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Lawmakers vote down money for Eau Claire’s Confluence Project

By: Dan Shaw, [email protected]//May 7, 2015//

Lawmakers vote down money for Eau Claire’s Confluence Project

By: Dan Shaw, [email protected]//May 7, 2015//

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Lawmakers on the state's budget committee voted Thursday to eliminate $15 million for the proposed Confluence Project in Eau Claire. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)
The state’s budget committee voted Thursday to eliminate $15 million for the proposed Confluence Project in Eau Claire. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Lawmakers on the state’s budget committee voted to eliminate the $15 million Gov. Scott Walker wanted for the proposed Confluence Project to be built in Eau Claire.

The money was to provide a state match for local money set aside for a planned $40 million to $50 million arts center to be built as part of the Confluence Project in the city’s downtown. Walker’s proposed 2015-17 budget, which lawmakers on the state’s Joint Finance Committee are now going through line by line and changing, would have set aside $15 million for the Confluence, even though the spending plan calls for no new borrowing for other long-planned construction projects.

While turning down the $15 million, Republicans on the committee Thursday approved a motion that would have the state’s Department of Administration consult the project developer and city officials over the next two years or so and report on the Confluence’s progress by June 30, 2017. State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, a Republican whose district includes Eau Claire, said it pained her to vote against state assistance for the project and said she hopes that the money can be found at a future date.

“I think it is important,” she said. “And it is my hope that this motion will allow us to revisit this project.”

Even though officials in and around Eau Claire have pledged support for the Confluence, the $15 million in state aid was in doubt almost from the outset, as Wisconsin lawmakers wondered why one part of the state should receive assistance of that sort while others do not. Then came Wednesday’s release of an update of the revenue forecasts state officials use to guide their budgeting decisions.

The Republicans who control Wisconsin’s Legislature had hoped for an increase in the forecast, in part to provide additional money to schools and to reduce the state’s borrowing for transportation projects. The report instead suggested there would be little to no change from previous predictions.

State Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, said he thinks the Confluence is a worthy project. But he said support for it and similar proposals, in the current budget at least, would come at the expense of schools.

Republican lawmakers have said their priority is finding a way to eliminate the $127 million cut Walker’s budget would make to schools in the fiscal year starting July 1.

“Make no doubt about it,” Kooyenga said, “when you say there should be (money) for this, you are also voting against schools — because that is what the Assembly and Senate has said our priority is.”

Before the vote against setting aside $15 million for the Confluence, state Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, made a motion that would instead have had the state borrow money for the project. Hintz said debt could be taken on for the Confluence and other buildings if Walker’s budget proposal were not so reliant on borrowing to pay for transportation projects.

Walker’s proposed 2015-17 budget would allow an additional $1.3 billion in debt to be taken on for various transportation projects, such as the ongoing work on the Hoan Bridge and Zoo Interchange in and near Milwaukee. Walker has said the state can take on that much additional borrowing and still lower its total debt load by allowing no new bonding for vertical construction.

“This project is worthy of bonding,” Hintz said shortly before his motion was voted down 12-4.

Russell Van Gompel, Eau Claire city manager, has said it’s hard to see how the Confluence Project’s arts center could go forward in its current form without the $15 million the governor wanted to put toward it. He noted that the original plans had actually called for the state’s contribution to be $25 million.

The Confluence plans call for the proposed arts center to have three theaters, art classrooms and space for similar purposes. The $15 million the governor wanted to have set aside in the budget for the project was contingent on local officials finding a way to also provide support.

As a match, the city of the Eau Claire has proposed contributing $5 million, and the surrounding county $3.5 million. Money would also come from philanthropic groups, which would give more than $13.5 million to the project, and from private investments, which would provide an additional $29.6 million.

As state officials vote down money for one part the Confluence, troubles of an entirely different sort have beset the project. The developers of Haymarket Landing – a separate $35.5 million, six-story building that is to contain 120 apartments and space for shops and restaurants – have had to contend with the failure of two retaining walls that stand adjacent to the project’s site.

After cracks and buckling began appearing in both walls, one of which stands almost on top of the other, crews knocked down a section of the upper structure and made plans to replace the lower, which runs along the Eau Claire River.


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