Eau Claire (WQOW) - More than one referendum, a charter ordinance and groups pitted against each other in what's become a nasty battle.
That describes Eau Claire's Confluence Project, but also applies to another project, one that cost a lot of money and aimed to improve the quality of life in town. That process was also complicated, time consuming and was the last time Eau Claire voters saw a charter ordinance on the ballot before this spring.
(This is the first story in a series about Eau Claire's Confluence Project, called "Downtown Decision Day.")
Water finds its own level, but in the midst of a Wisconsin winter, snow has the staying power. Outdoor pools, like Fairfax, sound like a mausoleum these days, but if you listen closely, you may hear the ghosts of summers past. Once school is out, Fairfax fills up with life again, about 60,000 swimmers every summer. But soaking up the sun pool side wasn't always an option. "When we got to Eau Claire, we said, 'This is a wonderful town, but the one thing we miss is that lovely outdoor swimming pool,'" said Paul Hoff, a retired teacher.
Hoff then dove in head first. "My wife and I got a committee together. We used to call it OPS, Outdoor Pool Supporters." Hoff says, in 1972, the city council told him to gather signatures and collect a lot of money before bringing a pool plan forward. "So we came back in about a year with over 6,000 signatures and around $1 million committed from Hobbs," said Hoff.
The city then organized its own committee, studied it for months before a vote was scheduled. "We thought it was a cinch," said Hoff... but "they voted unanimously against it."
There it sat for years. The plan for a pool could not hold water. Finally, a renewed effort in the late '80's, but even then, the project struggled to make a splash. Between November 1988 and September 1989, there were multiple referendums and charter ordinances, all about the pool.
Here's a rundown:
Nov. 1988 – Shall the city construct one large outdoor swimming pool and issue bonds for such purpose in amount not to exceed $1,700,000? Referendum passed
April 1989 – Where shall the city build its proposed municipal swimming pool? Buffington Park or Fairfax Park. Fairfax Park selected
April 1989 - Shall a charter ordinance be adopted which:
1) Prescribes the preparation of a community impact assessment report for certain large city projects resulting in an expenditure of $500,000 or more prior to committing city owned or leased real estate or structures to development or redevelopment
2) Repeals the December 13, 1988 resolution adopted by the City Council selecting Buffington Park as the site of the municipal outdoor swimming pool?"
Charter Ordinance failed
September 1989 -- Shall a charter ordinance be adopted which:
1) Repeals an April 11, 1989 city council resolution designating Fairfax Park as the site of a public outdoor swimming pool;
2) Requires that the City of Eau Claire construct one public outdoor swimming pool at each of the three separate following locations: Fairfax Park, Buffington Park, and a site in the north area of the City of Eau Claire?" Referendum failed
Bob Von Haden, a current city council member, remembers that time well. Von Haden says a group of council members did not want a swimming pool at all. They felt it wasn't viable and the cost was too great on a year-to-year basis for the city to undertake. However, they were in a jam because voters had already approved spending $1.7 million in a prior referendum (Nov. 1988) to build the pool.
So the question became, 'Where?' Von Haden claims several council members aligned themselves to split the vote between Buffington & Fairfax so the issue would fail to proceed, which a deadlocked vote would've accomplished. Von Haden said Betty Sonderegger, a council member, was a big Fairfax proponent, but changed her vote at the last minute to "Buffington" to ensure the city would still have a swimming pool.
Von Haden was a strong supporter of the Fairfax site, so he organized a citizen committee to collect signatures to get a charter ordinance (detailed above) on the ballot in April 1989. Von Haden says when they achieved their goal of getting it on the ballot, the city manager then requested a separate referendum, asking voters which site they preferred (Fairfax or Buffington). The charter ordinance failed & voters picked Fairfax.
But that wasn't the end of it.
Another charter ordinance went on the ballot in September 1989 which asked voters to repeal the Fairfax decision and build three separate pools. That referendum failed.
"I originally got started on this so my children could have a place to swim. Now, I'm doing it for my grandchildren," said Hoff.
Ultimately, Fairfax was built in 1991. What it took to build the pool gives us perspective today as we examine the nearly $80 million Confluence Project: It's a community arts center with theatres to replace the State downtown, and the UWEC's Kjer Theatre along with studios, galleries, classrooms and offices. The project also includes retail/commercial space, public parking and privately-funded student housing. "The process is clearly more complex and cumbersome than we expected, but it's still very manageable and we can hit our targets if things go fairly smoothly from here on in," said Dan Clumpner from Commonweal Development.
Two years and at least 19 votes later at the city, county and state level... still no final decision on the public/private partnership.
"Democracy does not come easily. If you want to be part of the democratic process, you better be prepared for that. That's the way it needs to be," said Eau Claire County Board Member Gerald Wilkie.
"One of the things we've heard repeatedly is that city tax dollars would be going to the construction of the community arts center when in fact, that is money that would come from Tax Increment Financing," said Mike Rindo, Assistant Chancellor for Facilities and University Relations at UW-Eau Claire. Rindo is referring to the city's $5 million pledge to the project through the use of a TIF, which has become the subject of a recent debate. Click here to see those documents about TIFs.
The county pledge of $3.5 million would be a direct tax hike, a $6 increase for the owner of a $100,000 home. Then, there's the question of a potential $25 million contribution from the state. "It's not a matter of whether it will be spent. It's a matter of where," said Rindo.
The state money is one thing that separates the pool project from the Confluence. There won't be a 17-year wait this time. "You only get one shot every two years to get a project advanced," said Rindo. The clock is ticking before a decision is made at the state level. "The Board of Regents will take a vote at its August meeting," said Rindo. Which is why if the Confluence Project is a no-go, UW-Eau Claire will pursue another option to replace Kjer Theatre and expand other performing arts facilities on campus.
The university's preference remains downtown with the Confluence Project which makes April first, a decision day for downtown. "That will be the determining point. After April 1st, the university will know what the community wants," said Rindo.
There are two referendum questions on April 1st: 1) Whether the county should approve a $3.5 million pledge. 2) Voters in the city of Eau Claire will also decide a charter ordinance. It would require them to approve city spending of more than $1 million for any building project being planned for the arts, like the Confluence Project.
Tuesday night, our series, "Downtown Decision Day" continues as we head south to find out how La Crosse revitalized its downtown. Is there something Eau Claire can take from their success? Watch "Downtown Decision Day" Tuesday night at 10 p.m. on Eau Claire's Own News 18.