The Wonder by the Water: Major downtown development announcemen - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

The Wonder by the Water: Major downtown development announcement

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Eau Claire (WQOW) - As she talked about the plans for a new performing arts center, Eau Claire City Council President Kerry Kincaid sounded a little like the character Terence Mann from the movie "Field of Dreams." 

"People will come to sit along the river, enjoy the natural beauty and go to a restaurant and listen to a concert.  People will come," said Kincaid.

Instead of a field of dreams, you might be able to call this project a "River of Dreams."  The Confluence Project was unveiled on Tuesday.  The project includes a new community arts center, commercial/retail complex and university student housing that will be built at the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers in downtown Eau Claire.  The entire project could cost $85 million.

"We are going to get a project that will satisfy the needs of the university and the community arts in a way that none of us could imagine doing it alone," said Mike Rindo, from UW-Eau Claire.  Rindo also represents Clear Vision Eau Claire, a community group that's been looking into the demand for and feasibility of a new public events facility.  The group made the announcement about the big project on Tuesday.

"This will be a very big generator for tourist activity.  Tourists like what the locals like and this is definitely what the locals like.  If we are there enjoying it, its going to bring in tourists to help enjoy it, to help pay for it, and to utilize it... so it will be a busy, active place for both locals and tourists alike," said Eau Claire Regional Arts Center Director Ben Richgruber.

The proposed 150,000 square foot arts center could come with a price tag of $55 million.  The plans also call for a facility that will include a mixture of commercial and retail space.  It will also provide upscale housing for university students.   "We are going to be working more on suite-style residence halls, which is separate bedroom and communal living areas and then bathrooms within that suite or an apartment-style residence hall that would also include a complete kitchen," said Rindo.  That part of the project could cost $30 million.

"The project will be paid for through multiple, multiple channels.  Obviously, with the university involved, they can bring in some state dollars.  We'd love to see the city and county involved at a level they feel comfortable with.  There are tax options out there as far as rebates and tax credits and then of course, the philanthropical goal of $10-12 million," said Richgruber.

Along with funding, one potential challenge has surfaced:  making room for the project.  Some of the businesses on Barstow Street will need to be relocated to make room for the new additions.  Developers said the next few months will be spent working with local governments and community groups to finalize designs and discuss financing.

Here's a timeline:  Work could begin in 2013.  The student housing phase could be done by the fall of 2015 with the community arts center to be finished the next year. 

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EAU CLAIRE (Press Release) — Clear Vision Eau Claire announced a public-private partnership that intends to construct a new community arts center, commercial/retail complex and university student housing at the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers in downtown Eau Claire.

The Confluence Project is consistent with hundreds of discussions with local citizens and visitors about the need for redevelopment of the South Barstow district, better utilization of the downtown riverfront, and new or improved community events facilities in Eau Claire. Those discussions were conducted over the last four years and culminated in two high-profile Clear Vision community forums March 29 and April 25.

"The Confluence Project represents an important and exciting major step toward realizing the Clear Vision strategic goals," said Vicki Hoehn, president of the Clear Vision Eau Claire board of directors.

The Confluence Project is planned on property commonly referred to as the "Haymarket Site," consisting of the Farmers Store and Market Square buildings that border the downtown Haymarket parking lot. The property is being acquired by Haymarket Concepts LLC. Haymarket Concepts is a partnership between Commonweal Development Corp., Market & Johnson Inc. and Blugold Real Estate LLC, a subsidiary of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Foundation.  Expanding the site to include buildings along South Barstow Street to allow for additional commercial space also is being considered.

"Commonweal Development has been interested in developing this property for a number of years and has been closely watching the Clear Vision community events facilities discussions and other planning processes related to cultural offerings and downtown revitalization," said Stuart Schaefer, Commonweal Development president.

"While this is an excellent site for private development, we were very interested in pursuing options that could serve as a catalyst for revitalization in the South Barstow district similar to what has occurred in recent years in the North Barstow district," Schaefer said. "So when the property became available for acquisition, we teamed with Market & Johnson and then approached our partners to explore the possible development of an arts center on the site."

George Stroebel, chair of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation Real Estate Committee and a member of the Blugold Real Estate board, also saw the opportunity presented by the availability of the property.

"The UW-Eau Claire Foundation and Blugold Real Estate want to be proactive partners with the university in achieving its strategic goals," Stroebel said.  "This project seemed to be the perfect opportunity to help the university and transform downtown Eau Claire."

Justin Vernon and Kyle Frenette of the Eau Claire-based, Grammy-winning band Bon Iver have been engaged in the early discussions regarding the project and will be actively involved in its development. Vernon, the group's frontman, and manager Frenette provided the following statement: 

"Once in a lifetime does an opportunity come along to do something like this — to build a center for the cultural expansion of Eau Claire and to finally hold a mirror up to the deep rivers of talent that flow here.  The need for something like this is apparent, and it's so inspiring to see it recognized by so many in the community. This city has an opportunity to create its own unique identity moving into future decades; let's start down here with this, then head all the way out to its borders."

As envisioned, The Confluence Project's public-private partnership will plan and construct  a community arts center of approximately 150,000 square feet that will serve the Eau Claire Regional Arts Council (ECRAC),  community performing and fine arts organizations, and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Private promoters will also be engaged to further expand the local entertainment experience.

Preliminary plans for the community arts center include:

  • Three distinct performance spaces:  a 1,200-seat theatre to replace downtown Eau Claire's obsolete State Theatre; a 450-seat theatre to replace UW-Eau Claire's aging Kjer Theatre; and a 250-seat black box-style venue.
  • Scene and costume shops.
  • Dressing rooms and other "back of house" operations.
  • Fine arts studios, gallery space and dance studio space.
  • Classrooms and rehearsal rooms.
  • Offices for ECRAC, community arts organizations and select university faculty and staff in the fine and performing arts.

The performance spaces would be designed for maximum flexibility to accommodate a wide range of acts, including major touring Broadway-style productions that currently cannot be effectively staged in any existing venue in Eau Claire. To maximize the utilization of the new community arts center, ECRAC, arts organizations and UW-Eau Claire will be collectively responsible for operating the facility.

"While the State Theatre has served Eau Claire well as a primary home for arts and entertainment through the years, it cannot accommodate many modern concert and theatrical productions and so we are now very limited in the kinds of acts we can offer," said Steve Bohrer, chair of the ECRAC board of directors.

In addition, an analysis of the State, which was constructed in 1926 as a vaudeville house, indicates it would cost more than $10 million just to extend its useful life without making the necessary stage and technical improvements, Bohrer said.

"Even if ECRAC made substantial investments in the State, we would still have the same size stage and other technical limitations," Bohrer said. "Our board of directors has decided the best way forward is to commit our energies and focus our resources on a new, state-of-the-art community arts center that will serve the needs of the greater Eau Claire community for decades to come."

Partnering with the community to create a shared arts facility is included in UW-Eau Claire's 20-year Campus Master Plan.

"It is widely recognized that UW-Eau Claire's performance and fine arts facilities do not reflect the high quality of the programs housed in them," said Patricia A. Kleine, the university's provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. "The community arts center will afford opportunities for our faculty and staff to greatly enhance the educational experiences they provide our talented students. The university is grateful to all who are working together to realize this shared vision."

Dan Clumpner, a partner in Commonweal Development, noted that the construction of the arts center is highly reliant upon multiple funding sources.

"Neither the community nor the university could individually afford to construct or operate a facility of this magnitude," Clumpner said. "The extensive planning work that has been completed to date provides considerable assurance that by working together, the project is viable."

The mixed-use project will include commercial and retail space, parking and apartment-style housing for approximately 300 university students. The housing will serve as a living-learning community for upper-class music, theatre and art students. No first-year students would live in the new facility.

Consistent with elements in the Eau Claire Downtown Riverfront District Redevelopment Strategy and Vision Plan, the preliminary Confluence Project  plans include a public plaza on the site of the Haymarket parking lot currently owned and operated by the city of Eau Claire, a bridge across the Eau Claire River connecting the new plaza to Phoenix Park, development of riverfront trails along the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers, and space adjacent to the trails suitable for outdoor dining and  various types of public gatherings. See "Public Plans Supporting The Confluence Project" for additional details.

The project timeline calls for the mixed-use development to be completed by fall 2015 and the community arts center to be completed in summer 2016. Site work could start as early as summer 2013. Based upon concept drawings currently available, estimated cost of the community arts center is $50-55 million, and the current estimated cost of the mixed-use development project is $25-30 million.

According to the developers, the next few months will be spent working with local governments and community groups to discuss the opportunities and to finalize the design plans and financial models.

"I commend all the partners in The Confluence Project for putting into action the philosophy of the Clear Vision process, that common goals are reached through collaboration from all parts of our community," Hoehn said. "I'm confident this collaboration will continue as all involved work to develop an equitable plan for securing the private, public and philanthropic funding that will be needed to ensure the success of this project."

Clear Vision Eau Claire will continue its involvement in efforts to fill events facilities needs identified by the community, including the community arts center, a multi-purpose major events center and convention/conference center, Hoehn said.

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