A look back at the Confluence Project - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

A look back at the Confluence Project



Eau Claire (WQOW) - Countless meetings, public hearings and several votes by various boards are in the books: but what happens tomorrow could be the tipping point.

Two referendums linked to the Confluence Project are on the line.

Before you step into the polls, take a step back in time and look at the project from when we first learned of the plans for downtown Eau Claire.

May 2012 is when we first heard of the public/private partnership: an $80 million project that would include a community arts center, student housing and retail in downtown Eau Claire.

"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," Ben Richgruber, State Theatre Executive Director says.

The Confluence Project has generated a lot of support.

"I had to leave Eau Claire when I was 25 because there just wasn't a platform for me to do my job. This project, this venue could be that for us," Justin Vernon of Bon Iver says.

But there are also a lot of questions.

"I don't think taxpayers in the city of Eau Claire should be responsible for the operations of the facility," City Council member Bob Von Haden says.

In October of last year, the city council voted to pledge $5 five million towards the project.

"The real impetus of our action is to show a willingness on the local level to try this," Eau Claire City Council President Kerry Kincaid says.

"The city council president, after the committee made their announcement, said we need to take a very slow and deliberate approach to moving forward with the confluence project and I truly believe this pledge Tuesday night is neither slow or deliberate," Eau Claire City Council member Monica Lewis says.  

At the same time a group called the Citizens Referendum Committee started collecting signatures to put a charter ordinance on the ballot: one that requires a referendum for city spending of at least $1 million on an arts project, like the Confluence.  By December 2013, they had collected nearly five thousand signatures.

"In my opinion, it would be very, very difficult for the City Council to not place this on the Spring ballot, with the kinds of signatures that we have." Mike Bollinger of the Citizens Referendum Committee says.

While the city was kept busy verifying signatures in January, the County Board weighed in.  Their decision: let the voters decide whether the county should pledge $3.5 million towards the project. 

"We think the county question will be fairly clear on the ballot, asking whether the county should support it. And I believe it would place a burden on the proponents and the opponents of the project to get out and educate the public about this issue," Gregg Moore, the Eau Claire County Board Chair says.

With the signatures counted, the city council had to decide whether to adopt the ordinance as written or send it to referendum.

"In my opinion this is a mean spirited move because it's taking a complicated and exciting point for our city and pulling it down to a question that doesn't reflect the input we still seek and we have been working so hard to pull out of people," Kincaid says.

"I don' think it's mean spirited at all. I think it's done in a positive spirit because the city is very divided on this because they don't have all the answers we have and we don't have all the answers we want," City Council Vice-President Dave Duax says.

The council then voted to put the charter ordinance on the ballot.  In the meantime, a handful of South Barstow businesses were told to move out by the end of March, so the buildings could be razed for the Confluence Project.

"You can't bring these buildings back once they're gone," Janice Wnukowski of the Historic Preservation Foundation says.

Today marked the deadline for a small group of businesses on Barstow Street to pack up.  As we reported last week, Scandinavian Imports is the only shop still in limbo.  The business was still open as of this afternoon.  The owner is asking for an extension from the landlord, John Mogensen.  He told us he's giving her more time to move out but did not say how much more time.

The debate will now shift to the polls on Tuesday, where voters will write the next chapter.

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