Madison (WQOW) - It may not be long before some key operational questions are answered about Eau Claire's Confluence Project, but even then, one lawmaker said that may not be enough to convince him to support it.
"I have to protect the taxpayer dollars. That's my obligation," said Rep. Steve Nass (R - 33rd Assembly District). Representative Nass first learned about the Confluence Project after it was presented to the public last May. "I had reservations out of the box, in that, once a project like this would go ahead, that other university campuses are going to want to do it. That is a concern because it's 10 blocks from campus and the mission of the campus is not to really get involved in local, private enterprises," said Nass.
The project, which is expected to cost around $85 million, would feature a community arts center, student housing and retail space. There's a mix of public and private partners involved and they plan to seek public financing ($55 million through UW System Board of Regents, $10 million from the City of Eau Claire + $5 million from Eau Claire County) to pay for much of it.
"When you look at all the players, it's pretty much taxpayer dollars. The question that struck me is, 'If this does not work, who's going to be on the hook?' Well, it's going to be the state of Wisconsin taxpayers through UW-Eau Claire," said Nass.
Rep. Nass is the chair of the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities. The committee does not have a role in reviewing or approving UW building projects, but it can slow the process. The chair can request a hearing on any topic related to higher education. "All the other players, everybody now has stepped back after I started asking questions," said Nass.
Last May, Nass filed an open records request asking for any documents or e-mails from UW-Eau Claire about the Confluence Project. "They were in a hurry to get it approved and fast track it into this budget and they were shooting for that last fall. They went to the Department of Administration, asked for a lease-purchase agreement, the Department of Administration said, 'No,'" said Nass.
"That's not consistent with my understanding," said lead developer Dan Clumpner from Commonweal Development.
WQOW News 18 reached out to the Department of Administration. A spokesperson provided the following statement: "The organizers of the Confluence Project contacted UW System and DOA about their project. Last November, the UW System discussed the possibility of a lease purchase option with DOA, but there hasn't been any decision."
Nass said when he sifted through the documents provided by UW-Eau Claire he was surprised by the lack of information about operational costs. "The operational side we still don't know. Now, a private study (by VenuWorks) has been commissioned and that was supposed to be done last fall, we still don't have it," said Nass. "There was an expectation that we would have released a VenuWorks report prior to this, but the fact is that we made extraordinary efforts to make sure that we have a complete package when it's submitted for scrutiny to the local government and the public... and that's taken longer than we expected," said Clumpner, who gave some examples: "There were some questions that were presented by UW System analysts. They were responded to. It was basically all about numbers and that's taken a little more time than we expected, but it was a diligent effort. There was also a question that relates to the specific requirement associated with a tax exempt nature of state financing and with the model that we're using and having other partners involved... there have been a fair amount of questions that have to be addressed that we just didn't anticipate," said Clumpner.
That study is now in the hands of the Eau Claire city manager who is reviewing it.
Nass says he also wants to know who will be in charge of a completed project. "Who is going to be the caretaker of all of this and if anybody were to step out of the picture, if the city decided, 'We can no longer afford it,' for whatever reason and they're pulling out, who is going to pick up their slack? Will it be the county? Will it be UW-Eau Claire, the developer? Will rents be raised? Will the students have to pay more," asked Nass.
Even if he had all of those questions answered, Nass said the project may still be misguided. "I think what should happen, is it should not be inserted into the budget. The developers should huddle together and put the project out there on their own, go ahead and put it up, and then go and lease back to the university the portions they would need," said Nass.
"Are we going to convince everyone? No. I'm convinced that we will not get a unanimous vote in the state legislature in favor of this project," said Mike Rindo, UW-Eau Claire Assistant Chancellor for Facilities and University Relations.
Rindo talked about the collaboration this project would require to be successful, a collaboration that may not be identical, but is similar to what the community has seen with Hobbs Ice Arena or Carson Park in the past. "There's an old proverb that says, 'If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.' What we're trying to do here is go far together with this project knowing that it's complicated, that it's difficult, that not everyone is going to support it. Our job is to make sure that people have information on which they can base their decisions," said Rindo.
Developers believe the project will create $18 million in sales tax revenue over a 10-year period. They released the draft of an economic impact analysis to Eau Claire County recently. You can find those documents on this page. You can also watch WQOW News 18's recent series about the Confluence Project right here.
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