Confluence runs into issues

Michael Schermann grew up in Minneapolis, but came to UW-Eau Claire for its music and theatre program.

When he heard about the Confluence Project, a dorm and arts venue in downtown Eau Claire, he was thrilled.

“It’s a really cool project,” said Schermann, an Eau Claire sophomore theatre major. “The theatre spaces here are lacking. They’re very small compared to Minneapolis but still classic.”

Market & Johnson, along with Commonweal Development and Blugold Real Estate partnered last fall to form the Haymarket Group, which purchased land at the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers in downtown Eau Claire.

Since then, UW-Eau Claire has been working with Eau Claire City Council, Haymarket and the Eau Claire Regional Arts council to plan a $75 million arts complex in downtown Eau Claire.

The complex would house Eau Claire arts students and feature learning, living and performance spaces in the heart of downtown.

For the past few months, confluence backers worked with city, county and state governments to push the project forward.

VenueWorks, an Ames, Iowa-based consulting firm conducted an audit of the project in late May, finding it to be a good economic decision.

According to the audit:
— The Confluence Project will run a $100,000 profit in its first year of operation.
— The project will also create $4.5 million in economic activity in its first year.
— In the first three years of operation, the Confluence Project will generate $1.1 million in additional tax revenue for the city and $444,000 for Eau Claire county.
— The project will create 525 construction jobs, 141 jobs from new downtown businesses and 40 jobs at the center itself.

But City Council Vice President David Duax said he isn’t sure the VenueWorks audit is end-all evidence of the project’s success.

“We’re still not completely comfortable with the numbers,” Duax said. “We feel like the VenueWorks audit made some risky assumptions, but we still have time to make sure the project will work economically.”

The Confluence Project is complex because it’s the biggest decision Eau Claire City Council has made in 50 years, Duax said. And while he’d like to see it all come together, he said the council needs to make sure it’s fiscally possible before anything can happen.

At a fiscal policy advisory meeting, Aug. 27, Senators Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma and Terry Moulton, R-Town of Seymour said they’d organize a meeting between confluence supporters and stakeholders.

Confluence backers and developers will meet with representatives in Madison to work out legal issues that could train wreck the project.

The state wants the city of Eau Claire to shoulder deficits if the Confluence can’t turn a profit.

The state is also stuck on who will own the Confluence, Duax said. Confluence ownership would be split between private investors, the city of Eau Claire, the university and the state.

Eau Claire City Council Member Andrew Werthmann said the county has also shown more reservations on the costs of the project.

“This project is beneficial to the county as well,” Werthmann said. “If we put up a big project in Eau Claire, that doesn’t hurt the county at all.”

VenueWorks recommended the city put together a committee, made up of representatives from all interests, to handle all confluence-related issues. Council will meet Tuesday to discuss how to form the committee.

Assistant Chancellor for Facilities and University Relations Mike Rindo said a state and Eau Claire County decision hinges on backing from City Council. Council has been working out details in closed session with developers and investors and is expected to make a decision sometime in the next year.

“Until we fully know what the participation level and the role of the city in this will be, it’s still fluid enough that we’ll be making those hard judgments as we go along,” Rindo said.