Eau Claire (WQOW) - In almost every American city, downtown represents heart, hope and history. Downtown is the heart of the city where business once dominated. Urban growth has changed that in many communities, but they have hope people will come back.
In downtown Eau Claire, you can already see a revival. North Barstow has given the movement momentum and last year, a new proposal took downtown development to the next level. It's called the Confluence Project and it has many partners. Local and state government are among those partners. They will have to sign on and they still have questions.
**This is the first story in the WQOW News 18 series, "Eau Claire's Confluence Project: A Watershed Moment"**
"We're really at a brink of something big here," said Eau Claire Economic Development Director Mike Schatz. The project is a confluence of business and education, the arts and retail... It's big and bold. The project calls for a community arts center with three theatres and 1,900 seats in between the Chippewa River and Graham Avenue. Next door is student housing with 375 beds and 27,000 square feet of retail space near the Eau Claire River, Eau Claire Street and South Barstow. There are also plans for riverfront trails and a public plaza. With a price tag of more than $80 million, you can't take it to riverbank yet.
"Does the project make sense from a financial standpoint," asked Eau Claire City Council Member Bob Von Haden. That's one question Von Haden has. Project organizers are requesting $10 million in funding from the city. They're also hoping for a $5 million commitment from the county. Von Haden says he has questions about parking. "If we'd have an event on a Thursday evening, they said, 'We can park in Phoenix Park.' No. There are no parking places in downtown Eau Claire on Thursday night," said Von Haden. "By using existing facilities and with some new facilities that are being planned or at least talked about, both in North Barstow and South Barstow, we don't see parking as a significant issue," said Dan Clumpner from Commonweal Development Corporation.
One of those new parking facilities could go in beneath the student housing. "Why would you put a parking garage under the dorm when the parking garage is for the fine arts center? Put the parking garage where it belongs, under the fine arts center," said Von Haden.
City funds could also pay for a footbridge to link Phoenix Park to the Confluence Project. "It's nice to have the walk across, but for $1 million... is it worth it? That's something we'll have to analyze as we get into the project," said Von Haden. It's easy to see why project organizers would want to link South Barstow with its sister across the river. "One of the most remarkable changes in the community has been North Barstow," said Mike Rindo, UW-Eau Claire Assistant Chancellor for Facilities and University Relations.
It's been 10 years since the first shovels went into the ground to build RCU's headquarters there. "Once Phoenix Park was put in there, we've seen the community become very creative on how to use it," said Schatz. With the farmer's market and summer concert series, North Barstow has become a downtown destination. "The same energy that has been experienced north of the river here... (we want to) just bring that south into the downtown," said Clumpner.
To do that, some historic South Barstow buildings would have to come down. "You can't bring these buildings back once they're gone. You continue to... pretty soon, you won't have any history left," said Janice Wnukowski, president of the Eau Claire Historic Preservation Foundation. "You speak to a lot of people who've lived here all their lives and they remember the fashion store and it was a high-end store," said Wnukowski as she described the old Kline's Department Store, which now sits empty. She also talked about the Scandinavian Imports Store. "She draws people in from across the United States."
Those buildings are among those on South Barstow that have been recognized by the National Register of Historic Places, which presents a hurdle for developers to clear. Since historic buildings are needed for the project and developers are asking for state money, in upwards of $55 million in state money... they, or a UW-System officer, must formally notify the Wisconsin Historical Society.
"As of now, that has not been done," said Patrick Kurtenbach, secretary & treasurer for the Eau Claire Historic Preservation Foundation. Kurtenbach describes the process once that formal notification has taken place: "The Wisconsin Historical Society has 30 days to respond. If they do respond, they're going to deem that there's going to be adverse effect on these structures and that goes into the mandatory negotiation phase. The mandatory negotiation phase is not a timed event. It's unlimited. It can take a day, it can take 10 years," said Kurtenbach.
Project organizers say it's important to remember that what citizens have seen so far is a concept, not a final design. "Once we get into the design process, the developer and the university will be in compliance with whatever steps need to be followed," said Rindo.
"There's an option B. It's not our preferred option. There are models that we don't think serve the community quite as well that wouldn't necessarily need those buildings on Barstow. We feel there are a lot of compelling reasons to include them," said Clumpner. He said the river access to Barstow is key, to complete a river walk and a bike trail. "Much of the historical nature of downtown will never be disturbed. There are some wonderful old buildings here that will be recognized as such and preserved," said Clumpner.
From the outset, questions have been raised about the business plan or the operating structure. How would the Confluence Project be run? For example, the city would maintain and operate its parking facility and the public plaza, but there's more to the Confluence collaboration than that. "The university maintains and operates its classroom and office space. The arts community (ECRAC) maintains and operates its facility. The developer is responsible for its commercial and office space if there were any," said Clumpner.
There are many cooks in the Confluence kitchen and because of that, a consulting firm (VenuWorks) has been studying the ingredients. "The primary objective (of the VenuWorks study) is to ensure that we don't build anything more than what's sustainable and to validate the operating models and to recommend a governance structure," said Clumpner. That study could be released in the next few weeks. "Everybody is anxious to see it. We're anxious to have it released," said Clumpner.
The study will be important for local and state government in the approval process of the Confluence, a project Clumpner says would mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. "To the university, it's really an opportunity to grow their academic mission in an area of strength. To the arts community, it's a home from which they can grow and prosper. To many of the public, it's a cultural opportunity. To an employer, it's about recruitment and retention. To local government, it's an economic development initiative, but I think for everybody, it demonstrates what you can do with the power of collaboration," said Clumpner.
That's a message developers have been stressing at public presentations. They say they've already given 25 of those presentations. "There's a difference between the public being informed and the public having input in the process to determine the outcome," said Kurtenbach.
As that process continues to unfold, others outside Eau Claire are watching and they have some advice: "If I were folks in Eau Claire, on both sides of the issue, I'd take a bus ride to Milwaukee," said Rocky Marcoux from the Milwaukee Department of City Development.
That's where WQOW News 18 will pick up the story on Tuesday night. WQOW News 18's Emily Valerio went to Milwaukee recently to learn what a project in that city could tell us about one of the key pieces of the Confluence Project. Join us for that story on Tuesday night at 10 p.m. in "Eau Claire's Confluence Project: A Watershed Moment."