By Eric Lindquist, Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, and Kevin Murphy
Gov. Scott Walker's revelation Wednesday that he will include $15 million in his state budget proposal for the Confluence Project was applauded by supporters as enthusiastically as they eventually hope to cheer for a show at the proposed performing arts center.
Walker's pledge - though significantly less than the $25 million in state support project backers had sought - should give a green light to developers to begin planning a design for the performing arts center at the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers, supporters said.
"This is fantastic news," said Ben Richgruber, executive director of the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center and a vocal proponent of the Confluence Project. "It's certainly enough to guarantee there will be a new arts center on the site."
Developer Dan Clumpner of Commonweal Development also hailed the governor's announcement as a major step forward for the project unveiled in 2012 that was to include a $51.2 million arts center and a $26 million mixed-use building including commercial space and student apartments. The project is widely considered to be a cornerstone of Eau Claire's downtown redevelopment efforts.
"In these tight budgetary times, we're delighted we're going to be included in the governor's budget recommendations," Clumpner said, referring to the state's projected $2 billion budget shortfall.
Construction started on the mixed-use building in November, but the fate of the arts center to be shared by UW-Eau Claire and the community appeared to rest on gaining the state funding.
Walker, a Republican, told a few dozen people attending a Chippewa Valley Rally luncheon in Madison that he would include the $15 million for the Confluence Project in the 2015-17 budget plan he will present to the Legislature next week. The budget still must be approved by the GOP-controlled Legislature.
The governor said he would propose making the funding contingent on an equal amount being raised by the community. That means the funds, if approved by the Legislature, would not be released until the "dollar-for-dollar match" is raised and the project is fully funded, he said.
The challenge grant concept has been used successfully for projects in other cities, as it helps to leverage state funding, Walker said.
Meeting the grant conditions won't be a problem for the Eau Claire project, as the total pledged by philanthropists and the city and county of Eau Claire already total about $15 million, Richgruber said.
Confluence Project backers are about halfway to their goal of raising $13 million in private donations, and it's possible that goal will be increased somewhat to try to fill the gap in state funding, Richgruber said.
But he expressed optimism that the governor's announcement could spark a surge in fundraising.
"This is the piece of the puzzle we were waiting for because everything has sort of been in limbo wondering what the state would do," Richgruber said, revealing that a number of potential donors indicated they were holding off on pledging until they were sure the state was a partner in the project.
Area residents can expect to see a much more visible fundraising campaign, including several major events, this spring, he said.
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