A future across the river?

Story by Andy Hildebrand, Staff Writer

Although in its early stages, the Eau Claire City Council unanimously passed a resolution Tuesday night in support of a proposed riverside development called the Confluence Project which will drastically change the face of the downtown district.

The Confluence Project, through a partnership of private and public funding will construct a new performing arts center, a new upper-class student housing complex and retail complex.

Market & Johnson Inc., along with Commonweal Development and Blugold Real Estate LLC, formed the Haymarket Concepts LLC, named for the riverfront area by the same name where the project is planned for. The group purchased this land, located near Phoenix Park where the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers merge, independently and is hoping to partner with the city of Eau Claire and the UW System to complete the downtown’s virtual facelift.

President of Commonweal Development, Stuart Schaefer, formally presented the proposal to the Eau Claire City Council for the first time Monday night and emphasized the potential for the Confluence Project.

“It’s the most underutilized riverfront I’ve ever seen,” Schaefer said. “A project of this size requires thorough planning though. We are in the midst of that and by no means are done.”

A significant amount of the planning that remains revolves around funding for the project. The Confluence Project carries with it a $90 million price tag. That includes a request of $10 million from the city of Eau Claire. Several ways of generating the money have been proposed, including the utilization of parking ramp revenue. However, the most popular theory would create a hotel and motel tax.

Although the city council approved the proposal, council member Bob Von Haden questioned the validity of some of Schaefer’s estimates Monday night and spoke to the need of more quality information.

“Tomorrow’s approval does not mean it may or may not be approved finally,” Von Haden said.

The System will be asked to contribute $55 million to the project. That includes $25 million for the performing arts center and $30 million for the student housing facility.

The new performing arts center would replace the Kjer Theater and consist of a 1,200 to 1,500 seat theater, a 450 seat theater, and a 250 seat black box venue. Although designed for university use, the performing arts center will be equally utilized by independent art groups.

The UW-Eau Claire Student Senate also gave their approval in unanimous fashion last week. Sarah Holm, one of the senators to sign off on the project was excited about its potential.

“I was impressed by the plan in its current form,” Holm said. “I hope that as it matures, it will increasingly demonstrate its ability to benefit the entire Eau Claire community. I have lived outside of Eau Claire for 10 years, and this is the best plan for improving this section of downtown that I have ever seen.”

While unanimous votes by both the Senate and city council accurately represent a great amount of enthusiasm for the project, not all are convinced it’s the right move for downtown Eau Claire.

Freshman Jesse Winter attended the Senate meeting to gather more information on the Confluence Project. While he agrees with the need for development along the river, he doesn’t think student housing should come into the picture.

“I’m all for introducing new businesses and for the arts center,” Winter said. “But there’s talk of taxes going up in the surrounding areas of Eau Claire to compensate for the new student housing. That makes it harder for existing businesses to pay their bills. I don’t think that’s fair.”

The proposed student housing complex would accommodate 300 to 375 upperclassmen. However, the development would drastically decrease parking in the area. For now, the plan is to designate the top floors of the existing parking ramp for student use, but other alternatives could still be considered.

If the Confluence Project moves forward as planned, the new facilities would hold a mixed opening in the fall of 2015, with a complete, grand opening in the Fall of 2016.

Schaefer estimates the value of the retail complex alone is in excess of $3 million, and the project as a whole represents an immediate investment of up to $100 million in downtown Eau Claire.

Many steps remain before the Confluence Project becomes a reality, but if passed, the future of downtown Eau Claire will look much different than it does today.