Eau Claire (WQOW) - The Confluence Project has sparked a good discussion about whether a new dorm would be a good fit downtown. For some perspective, WQOW News 18 traveled to Milwaukee where students are threaded into a prime business district.
Eau Claire City Council Member Bob Von Haden says, "I've heard from a lot of people, especially in my district, that say, why would we put a dorm downtown?"
The downtown dorm is a $30 million slice of the confluence pie. Some downtown businesses are more than ready to provide a warm welcome to 300 new neighbors while others are feeling hesitant about having a dorm in their backyard.
"I really have said to people, that this could put me out of business," says Jane Wolf, the owner of the Silver Feather. Wolf says 25 years ago, she chose to locate on South Barstow over Water Street. "I thought it had a different image for my type of store. I don't really cater to that college age group. I think putting the students down here is just going to turn into more of a Water Street," says Wolf.
Von Haden says, "Most of the businesses downtown would not generate anything from students because they don't buy the things that are normally sold."
Benny Haas, the owner of Pizza Plus and Benny HaHa was drawn downtown for a different reason. He says,"We opened the arts store 10 years ago downtown because of, to be honest with you, rent rates on Water Street were that much more expensive. So, we took that route and it's kind of serendipity that the art building and the art students are moving towards us."
Mike Schatz, the Economic Development Director for Eau Claire, views the confluence vision as an opportunity. He says, "If you can bring 300 more people living in your downtown, you're going to put a demand on businesses. I think it will only be a positive. Now what it might do, is it may change the mix. Some businesses may find opportunities from that to serve the younger college populations"
A high-end grocery store is probably not the best fit. Charly's Market, a relatively new grocery store, and the only one downtown, recently closed. Schatz says, "It has to be something people either can't get somewhere else or want to come for."
College students have been living downtown for decades. Mike Rindo, UW-Eau Claire Assistant Chancellor for Facilities and University Relations, says, "A lot of people probably don't realize how many of our students are already living there."
To give us an idea of the changes that could be around the river bend, WQOW News 18 made the journey to Milwaukee. On the east side of the Cream City, and just off North Avenue, you can find the University of Milwaukee's South Campus. Tom Luljak, the Vice Chancellor for UW-Milwaukee, says, "This is putting students, really, at the doorstep of the entire city."
There are three dorms melded into the flow of the prime business district. Each one was constructed within the last 10 years. Rocky Marcoux, the Commissioner for the Department of City Development in Milwaukee, says, "Where you had small empty storefronts, now you have a smaller mom and pop operation coming in which is great. Unique retailing opportunities are what create real value in a commercial district."
UW-Milwaukee Student, Briana Newkirk, says, "Living here, I can literally walk out the front door, walk down the sidewalk and there are restaurants, a movie theater and a bowling alley."
Luljak says, "Exposing students to much more than just a small campus area, and let them connect to the city."
Before the south campus even existed, dorm space on the university's main campus was in high demand. Over the years, thousands of students were turned down for housing. "Each year, we lost hundreds of students who chose not to come to UW-Milwaukee because, at the time, we didn't have a place for them to live on campus," says Luljak.
That same demand can be found on Eau Claire's campus. Rindo says, "The university is currently at 108% capacity of our existing housing." You may wonder how that adds up... "The answer to that is not only is every room filled with two students that we have available, but we also have students living in study lounges and other spaces that have been converted for living," explains Rindo.
The university even has 150 students living at The Plaza. Rindo says, "Once we're at full capacity on campus with our housing, that's when we turn to the hotels. We believe that we would be able to achieve our short-term goals by removing students from living in hotels."
Von Haden says he needs to be certain the community arts center will be built before deeming downtown and a dorm a good fit. He says,"Unless the total project happens, I don't really see the purpose of a dorm downtown, because all that does is put a large number of students in one place that have to commute to campus... where, they could put that on campus where it should be."
When it came time for UW-Milwaukee to solve its space crunch, neighbors living in the shadows of the four existing campus towers were vocal. Nik Kovac, the 3rd District Alderman for Milwaukee, says, "If you live in immediate walking distance within those dorms, you're under siege." Luljak says, "We had neighbors who said, 'Look, you already have 3,000 students living right next to our neighborhood. Can you find another place that would be more suitable?'"
The answer was yes, but: "We're surrounded by neighborhood homes so there's no other place for us to expand right here on the main campus," says Luljak. So while one neighborhood was breathing a sigh of relief, another was holding its breath. Kovac says,"People were worried that the kind of nuisance, noise and alcohol-related crime was going to follow the students."
During the approval process, neighbors expressed concern about the hundreds of students that would inevitably change the place they call home. So, how has everyone adapted? Milwaukee business owner Bill Houghton, says, "I think the neighborhood has vastly improved, as far as the amount of traffic and thriving businesses, has gone up."
WQOW News 18 asked Alderman Kovac, if given the chance to change anything, what it would be. He says, "That building on the east side of the river should have embraced the river instead of turning its back to the river. That's my one big regret."
Given what they've learned, WQOW News 18 asked these Milwaukee leaders to share their advice as Eau Claire takes on the Confluence Project.
Kovac says, "I think that if you stand on North Avenue today and look at the two dorms that were built, you can really see the distinction that happens when you have a really thoughtful and engaged community process and what happens when you don't. Having a good community process on whatever the issues are that are the most important to your community, which I am imagining are not that different from here: quality of life, economic impact, sustainability, and historic preservation. If you can get all four of those things right, I think downtown is a place for students to live."
Marcoux says, "If I were folks in Eau Claire, on both sides of the issue, I'd take a bus ride to Milwaukee."