Local voters gave a virtual round of applause Tuesday to the Confluence Project proposed for downtown Eau Claire.
Unofficial results from two separate referendums indicate supporters of the $77.2 million public/private venture got the public endorsements they sought to keep the ambitious project moving forward.
"This is the community recognizing that a collaboration with the university allows everyone to achieve a greater result while spending less," said James Hanke, chairman of the advisory committee for pro-Confluence advocacy group Voices for Growth.
With all 77 precincts reporting in the Eau Claire County referendum, voters supported the county contributing $3.5 million toward the project's $51.2 million performing arts center by a margin of 54 to 46 percent.
In the city of Eau Claire referendum, it appears voters rejected the notion that future referendums would be required before the city could spend $1 million or more on any arts-related building project. With all 60 precincts reporting, 59 percent of voters had voted "no" and 41 percent had voted "yes" on the referendum mandate.
The Confluence Project, unveiled nearly two years ago, calls for a performing arts center, an apartment-style student dormitory and commercial development to be built next to the spot where the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers merge.
"This is a powerful statement for the future of the community," said Dan Clumpner of project developer Commonweal Development Corp. "Today we just celebrate all of those people who came together, and tomorrow we go to work to make it happen."
Despite the successes, Clumpner emphasized the project still faces challenges, most notably getting the state to approve $25 million for its share of the collaborative project.
"This isn't the end of the process. It's only a license to continue the process," Clumpner said, explaining that now developers will move forward with substantive meetings with local and state officials to work out key details regarding the project.
Clumpner added that he hopes the referendum results will give a boost to efforts to obtain philanthropic donations from residents and businesses totaling $15 million. About a third of that amount has been raised so far.
The city referendum was particularly crucial, he said, because UW-Eau Claire faces an August deadline for submitting an arts center proposal that could be funded in the 2015-17 state budget. Without an assurance of city support for their preferred option of the Confluence Project by that time, university officials had said they likely would move forward with a backup proposal to build a smaller arts center on campus.
UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt said in a statement that what he called the "overwhelming endorsement" should provide a clear indication to state officials that the community supports the project and the public-private partnership model.
"The results demonstrate our fellow citizens agree the Confluence Project represents a new way of government institutions and private enterprise working together to create something that no single entity could create alone: a first-class arts center that will greatly benefit the community and the university alike."
In the weeks leading up to the election, representatives of Voters With Facts, the advocacy group backing the city referendum, countered the buzz surrounding the Confluence Project by maintaining the public didn't have enough information about the proposal to make an educated decision about public investment in what they consider an overly expensive development. They also suggested the city referendum, if approved, would have given residents a direct say in major arts-related projects.
Mike Bollinger, Judy Olson and Larry Balow, three leaders of the Citizens Referendum Committee, which had forced the city referendum on the ballot, issued a statement Wednesday acknowledging the support for the project expressed by the vote.
"We are grateful to all the volunteers who worked so hard to insure that the citizens of Eau Claire had the right to vote on this important topic," the statement said.
"Voter turnout was high, and the conversation on the confluence project dominated our spring thaw. We at the CRC hope that our leaders recognize all the great things that came from placing such an important decision in the hands of the voters and continue to involve the community as the project evolves. We had one simple mantra - "Let
Meanwhile, supporters of the project continuously stressed the advantages of collaboration and the proposal's potential to spur redevelopment downtown.
"It reinforces the community's interest in seeing a revitalized downtown and seeing the performing arts center as a way to achieve a part of that revitalization," Hanke said.
Councilman Bob Von Haden, who did some volunteer work with Voters with Facts, said Tuesday's result wasn't a surprise.
"Basically we were outspent significantly," he said. "All of the major organizations were supporting the negative vote for that (city) referendum."
Von Haden, a retired accountant who crunched numbers on the potential tax impact of the project, said the referendum campaign helped answer questions on the Confluence proposal and also acknowledged that the result demonstrated the community's willingness to commit to the project.
"The important thing, the result of this was we were able to get the voters informed on a lot of issues and we were able to frame the issues," he said.
Local government officials have estimated a $3.5 million county donation to the project plus the impact on a city tax incremental finance district would result in an estimated $17 property tax increase annually for a city home worth $150,000 or $11 for the same value home elsewhere in Eau Claire County.
Critics, including Von Haden, have argued that estimate is too low.
Project supporters say $17 a year for city residents is a small price to pay for a development they see as the anchor that will spark the revitalization of downtown — and corresponding tax base growth — by attracting businesses and people to the city center.
Though Tuesday's vote focused on costs to build the project, Von Haden noted a bigger question will likely be how future operations will be funded.