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Posted: January 10, 2014 Eau Claire County committee pledges $3.5M to Confluence

By Joe Knight 

Leader-Telegram staff 


The Eau Claire County Board's Committee on Administration voted 4-1 Tuesday afternoon to contribute $3.5 million to the Confluence Project, subject to several contingencies, after hearing more than an hour of testimony from people mainly supporting the project.

Whether the county should support the project will be considered next by the Finance and Budget Committee at its 4:30 p.m. meeting Thursday at the courthouse and most likely will be considered by the full board at its Jan. 21 meeting.

Developers of the project had requested the county contribute $5 million toward the proposed $77.2 million Confluence Project.

"This is smart. This is leveraging our local dollars to get state dollars," said committee member Gregg Moore. The project is a proposed joint venture involving UW-Eau Claire, the city of Eau Claire and the private sector.

The County Board had a briefing on the project from the developers and university officials last January, but this spring the board put further discussions on hold while they waited for the city to make a commitment. The city has committed $5 million to the project, subject to contingencies, and the county is now taking up the question.

Time is a factor, said UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt. If the university does not get a commitment on the Confluence Project within the next few months, it will have to start planning for a smaller theater on campus, he said. The university's Kjer Theatre is more than 40 years old and was built when the university had fewer than 1,000 students.

Schmidt said he has met with many business leaders since taking on the job of chancellor last fall, and a common concern is that Eau Claire may not have the amenities to attract young, creative professionals. This is the type of project that would help attract and hold those people, he said.

Responding to those who say the Confluence Project is a city project that the county should not be involved with, Moore said that 61 percent of the property taxes in the county comes from the city of Eau Claire. The National Association of Counties is supportive of counties investing in arts, he said.

Supervisor Bruce Willett, the lone "no" vote, said the county should wait until a task force comprising city, university and public members completes a report on the project this spring.

"I feel that we may be dooming the project if we feel rushed ... I feel rushed," he said. Willett said he would like to see the developer, Haymarket Concepts, assume more risk.

Moore said contingencies in the resolution they passed, similar to the city's contingencies, would prevent the county from spending any money until there were written agreements on the project.

Colleen Bates said the $3.5 million would be a one-time payment that would cost the average household about the cost of a package of soda each year for 10 years.

Scott Rasmussen, director of the county's Finance Department, said a 10-year bond for $3.5 million would cost the owners of a $100,000 home about $5.90 per year for 10 years.

Dave Wood, who has been gathering signatures to put city support for the Confluence Project for a referendum, said he has been going door-to-door and there is little support for spending public money on this project.

"I challenge you to knock on doors and talk to real human beings," he said.

Operating costs for theaters in other communities are much higher than estimates being used for the Confluence Project, he said.

"These numbers just don't add up," he said.

Darin McFadden, chairman of the board of the Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce, said the board unanimously supported the Confluence Project.

Because of levy caps, all local governments must rely on new development to offer long-term growth in their tax base, he said.

The arts center is expected to create more than 141 new jobs and more than $4.6 million in new economic activity, with new room and sales taxes exceeding $225,000 per year, he said.

Judge Thomas Barland said this kind of opportunity comes once in a lifetime.

The State Theatre is uninsulated and is being held together by wires and strings. It would take $10 million to bring it up to modern standards, he said.

"Madison will be watching to see what levels of governments are supporting, even symbolically, in this case. ... Do we rely upon a crumbling building and embrace stagnation?" he asked.

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