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Evers backs UW-Eau Claire science hall overhaul in next biennial budget

Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday proposed set aside money in his two-year state construction budget for an overhaul of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s science building — a project that drew criticism from a top lawmaker last summer for leapfrogging other campus projects.

The project would have the UW-Eau Claire’s L.E. Phillips Science Hall, which was built beginning in 1963, replaced with a science building meant in part to accommodate a new partnership formed with the Rochester, Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic. Evers announced that his biennial capital budget, which he released on Thursday, would have $109 million set aside for the new science building. Evers has proposed spending $2.5 billion over the next two years on building projects throughout the state.

Even if the $109 million Evers is seeking for the science building is approved by lawmakers. UW officials are also seeking $147 million from the state’s 2021-2023 biennial budget, said Mike Rindo, UW-Eau Claire’s assistant chancellor for facilities and university relations.

Beyond that, Mayo Clinic has told the university that it intends to raise $13.7 million for a 10,000-square-foot research space inside the science hall where the health care system’s employees would work with UW-Eau Claire faculty and students, he said. Mayo Clinic did not respond to a request for comment by press time Thursday.

“They have given us a firm commitment,” Rindo said. “But its not a sign-on-the-bottom-line agreement because we don’t know if the (science hall will be funded).”

Rindo said if state money is ultimately included in the next budget, the university would solicit a request for designs in July of 2020, bid the project in January of 2023 and begin construction in March of that year. Officials hope to complete the first phase of the project in June 2025.

The new science hall must still gain approval from the Wisconsin Building Commission, which will consider the project at its meeting on March 20, Rindo said. The project then will have to get approval from the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee and survive hard-fought budget negotiations between GOP lawmakers and Evers, a Democrat.

The science-hall project also drew skepticism from a prominent Democratic lawmaker last summer, when it was listed in the University of Wisconsin System’s $2 billion capital-projects request. In August, Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, wondered why the science building was being advanced ahead of other long-planned campus buildings. He noted that five of the 17 members of the UW board of regents are from the Eau Claire area, a fact that at least gives off a questionable appearance. Hintz did not respond to a request for comment by press time Thursday.

The proposed overhaul of UW-Eau Claire’s science hall and the campus’ partnership with Mayo Clinic will help make the university into a research hub, Evers said. Since 2013, more than 200 businesses, government agencies and other groups have consulted programs housed in the science building or worked with student researchers there.

“The state’s investment will leverage taxpayer dollars to support the Chippewa Valley’s emergence as a healthcare innovation hub, while also investing in a visionary campus that is tackling some of the most pressing healthcare and technology issues facing rural Wisconsinites,” Evers said in a statement.

About Nate Beck, nbeck@dailyreporter.com

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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