ASSIGNMENT 13: Confluence Project 101

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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) -- Over the past two years, the Confluence Project has become part of our local vocabulary. And on April 1st, the Spring Primary, words turn to action.

Both an Eau Claire City referendum and an Eau Claire County referendum could have a major impact on the future of the Confluence Project.

Conversations about the project started in 2006 and 2007 with the Clear Vision Eau Claire Project. Project members interviewed hundreds of people asking what the city was missing.

"It became very apparent that community events facilities was a major need; we needed some new arts facilities and we need a major convention space," said Ben Richgruber, the Executive Director of the
Eau Claire Regional Arts Council.

After five years of discussion, the Confluence Project was announced in 2012. Put simply it is a near $80 million project that would bring a new community arts center, public plaza and a mixed use
building that would include retail space and student housing to downtown Eau Claire.

The idea is to use public and private money to build something that benefits the university and Chippewa Valley in one big project.

The UW System (the state), county and city have all pledged money toward the project. But all of them have strict conditions that have to be met before anybody sees a check.

The UW Board of Regents in 2012 approved putting $25 million toward the project. But before anybody sees that money, there has to be a showing of local support. That money also has to make it into the state budget.

Eau Claire County has pledged $3.5 million. Before that money is spent, the state needs to commit to helping fund the project.

Eau Claire County voters will also need to approve spending those dollars on the Confluence Project through a referendum this spring. A referendum puts ideas being considered by lawmakers in front of

The question asks if the county should put $3.5 million toward the project. It is a simple yes or no vote.

"If the resolution is approved it's about $5.92 for 10 years on a $100,000 house," said Eau Claire County Board Chairman Greg Moore.

And then there is the city. It has pledged $5 million of your tax dollars toward the arts center. But like the county, nobody sees city dollars until there is state support. There will also be a city referendum, too, though it is not as straightforward as Eau Claire County.

Here's how it will work: voters will be asked if they support creating a new city ordinance. It would require a referendum anytime the city contributes more than $1 million to a building project related
to the arts. A law that could have an impact beyond the Confluence Project.

"Any project in the future that deals with capital arts projects of over one million dollars would go to the voters," said Eau Claire City Attorney Steve Nick.

If the April 1st referendum passes, it means there will be a second referendum on the Confluence Project itself.

"So, if it's no, then we leave the policy in place, so it's a really a change in how we conduct and go through our approval process for projects dealing with the arts," said Eau Claire City Manager
Russ Van Gompel.

The referendum was brought on by a group called the Confluence Referendum Committee. It collected more than the roughly 3,600 signatures needed to get a question on the spring ballot. Chairman Mike Bollinger sees it as a way to give taxpayers a voice.

Here is the bottom line: the county referendum is simply asking whether $3.5 million in your tax dollars should go to the performing arts center. A "yes" vote means the county could kick in the money. A "no" vote means it won't spend that money.

The city referendum is a little more complicated. A "yes" vote means, from here on out, the voters will decide whether the city would spend $1 million or more on an arts project. That could put the Confluence Project in jeopardy.

A "no" vote means the city council continues to decide how to spend that money. That could keep the Confluence Project on the table.

You will have the opportunity to make those decisions on April 1st.

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