How does an idea like the Confluence Project come to be?
Sent to me by Eric Larsen, Eau Claire City Council
While speaking to folks in the community about the Confluence Project, and reading some of the information that has been circulated about it, I have noticed some confusion about how a project like this suddenly appears on the public stage. The truth is that it didn't suddenly appear. The Confluence Project was not dreamed up by the developers in a vacuum with the hope of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It is an answer to at least thirteen years of developmental research and planning for our center city.
By the late 1990’s many years of decline was at risk of becoming a death spiral for downtown Eau Claire. Poverty, crime, pollution, and deteriorating infrastructure were taking over where, economic activity, innovation, and cultural attraction had deserted. New development was all occurring on the Clairemont Ave. / Hastings Way belt line while downtown was failing.
About that time, the City Council under the leadership of Council President Howard White commissioned a consulting company from Alexandria Virginia to study our situation and make some recommendations for revitalizing our downtown. Hyett Palma specializes in the economic enhancement of downtowns and other commercial urban districts. In June of 2001, Hyett Palma issued a 198 page report called “Eau Claire Downtown Action Agenda 2001”. The report provided a framework for decision making with regard to everything from parking, trails, wayfinding, and streetscapes, to cultural enhancement, economic orientation, and public/private collaboration. The report has been referred to many times during the decision making points for downtown in the thirteen years since it was received. Not every decision has followed the letter of the plan, but it has been a constant guide through the process.
Some of the remarks from the Downtown Action plan that have contributed to the development of the Confluence Project proposal include the following:
· “Downtown Eau Claire would be known far and wide as having the following image.
o A strong arts and cultural center that draws lots of people, that draws from events held elsewhere, and that is a hub between Minneapolis and Madison.”
· “The most successful Downtown enhancement efforts nationwide are those that are implemented by a partnership among the private and public sectors. For Downtown Eau Claire to reach its full potential, Downtown's key private and public sector leaders and constituents must plan together and implement together -- in partnership. A shared direction, a unified voice, and action -- on the part of that partnership -- are essential for Downtown success.”
In January of 2002, City Council approved a resolution creating “Downtown Eau Claire, Incorporated” (DECI) to implement the Downtown Action Agenda. DECI is a non-profit public/private partnership dedicated to promoting the development of business, housing, cultural resources, and activities within downtown Eau Claire.
The City Council approved the formation of TIF #8 in 2002, in preparation for realizing the vision for downtown that the Hyett Palma action plan suggested. But for the use of tax increment financing, and the partnership between public and private interests, the development and revitalization we have seen so far would not have occurred.
By September of 2005, City Council had adopted revisions to the City’s comprehensive plan that recognized many of the suggested strategies from the Downtown Action Plan. Here are some examples that now apply to the proposed Confluence Project:
· “Re-establish the Downtown as a regional mixed-use activity center integrating civic and government uses, professional and corporate offices, health care, meeting and entertainment facilities, arts and culture, housing, and specialty retail.”
· “Encourage the use of the riverfront and adjacent open spaces as a key-organizing feature for the design and orientation of both public facilities and private development.”
· “Create a small riverfront plaza at what would be the west end of Eau Claire Street near the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire Rivers and link this plaza to the town square via a sidewalk promenade along Eau Claire Street incorporating special streetscape and landscaping designs.”
· “Construct a bridge over the Eau Claire River connecting Phoenix Park and the Haymarket Riverfront Plaza area.”
In 2008, independent of city government planning, a group of concerned citizens representing business, education, government, and nonprofit organizations, throughout Eau Claire County participated in a community visioning and strategic planning process through an organization called “Clear Vision Eau Claire”. They focused on six key performance areas for the community; 1) Civic Engagement, 2) Economic Development, 3) Education, 4) Health, 5) Quality of Life, and 6) Transportation. In July of that year they produced a visionary report outlining their own ideas of what Eau Claire should look like by 2020. Three of the six performance areas resulted in goals that can now be at least partially realized through the Confluence Project:
· “Embed collaboration into the civic infrastructure and culture.”
· “Build community capacity for collaboration.”
- “The lack of venues for the performing arts, conventions, sporting events, and other large-attendance events places the Greater Eau Claire Community at a significant disadvantage for hosting events that are often identified as important components of ‘quality of life’ and often cited as reasons that people prefer to live in locations that provide such amenities. Providing such a venue will add another dimension to the already attractive quality of life offered throughout the Greater Eau Claire Community.”
- “Provide for modern communication and transportation infrastructure, as well as venues serving the arts, culture, entertainment, and recreation.”
QUALITY OF LIFE
- “Improve the infrastructure that supports a vibrant arts, culture, and recreational scene in Eau Claire County.”
- “Encourage participation in community events, including artistic, cultural, recreational, and other activities, and instill a perception of open opportunity for participation by all residents and visitors.”
In 2010, the City Council adopted an economic development plan that provided addition frameworks for how we could fulfill the vision that was being created for downtown. The plan includes the following suggestions for improving our “Quality of Place”:
- “Invest in the cultural, recreational, and leisure amenities in Eau Claire that encourage businesses and people to thrive.”
- “Work with community organizations to provide a wide variety of cultural and leisure activities.”
- “Promote investment in public art and well designed public spaces.”
- “Work with private and public partners to maintain a variety of affordable recreational venues.”
- “Pursue innovative public/private partnerships and joint ventures for community performance arts facilities.”
Meanwhile from 2009 to 2011, the Chippewa Valley Museum, the L. E. Philips Memorial Public Library, the Children’s Museum of Eau Claire, and members of Clear Vision Eau Claire worked to discover what residents of cultural life in Eau Claire, and use that information to create a cultural plan for Eau Claire. In 2011 the group issued a report of their findings called “The Good Life, A Cultural Direction for Eau Claire County”. The report contemplated many ideas and strategies that are now part of the proposed Confluence Project.
- “Redevelopment: Should the City actively promote redevelopment of deteriorated, under-utilized or incompatible properties near the waterways to leverage these resources and public investment?”
- “Pedestrian Bridge: Should a pedestrian bridge be built over the Eau Claire River near the confluence?”
- “Support places where creative individuals want to be and can interact.”
- “Encourage interest and enterprises based on our arts and cultural strengths.”
- “(Develop) coursework at the University level for surviving as an artist.”
- 87% of survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “A vibrant arts district in the downtown City of Eau Claire is important.”
- “Leverage our unique community identity to continue efforts to improve downtown’s infrastructure and economy. Support Downtown Eau Claire as a center of cultural life for the City and County of Eau Claire.”
- “Ensure cultural elements of existing plans for the City and County remain a priority and are accomplished.”
- “Foster and maintain a vibrant cultural district in Downtown Eau Claire for residents and visitors.”
- “Failing to invest in education, especially arts- and culture-based education, will severely hinder Eau Claire’s competitive edge, not only for future graduates, but for Eau Claire County’s economic success. In order to compete with new national and global economies, we must foster local creative talent, retain the talent that is already here, and draw in new resources.”
- “Provide more educational opportunities for arts, history and heritage.”
- “Build stronger connections between local schools, organizations and cultural representatives.”
- “Bridge the gap between UWEC and the general community in communicating and coordinating culture, arts, history and heritage programs and offerings. Eau Claire County has a diverse arts, history and heritage scene, in part because of the opportunities provided by UWEC.”
- “Coordinate university and community organizations’ programming.”
- “Have the university establish an instructional building downtown.”
In July of 2011, Downtown Eau Claire, Incorporated and the South Barstow Business Improvement District worked with Ayres Associates Design Studio and Redevelopment Resources to work on a new Downtown Redevelopment plan. The group analyzed documents, data sources and categories of information on the downtown area, interviewed approximately 20 downtown stakeholders, met with the Downtown Riverfront District Steering Committee, spent time driving and walking the downtown area and visiting businesses, and conducted a stakeholder visioning session. The goal of the plan is to provide a series of recommendations aimed at sustaining a healthy and economically viable downtown for the City of Eau Claire. Here are some of them that now apply to the Confluence Project:
- “Minimize surface parking when possible, and consider site and financial feasibility to utilize underground parking.”
- “An Arts and Entertainment District can become a focal point that attracts businesses, stimulates cultural development, fosters civic pride and provides a needed multi-dimensional economic development approach for the downtown area. A joint venture with the University may provide the best opportunity to achieve this goal.”
- “The UW-Eau Claire is an important, strategic partner. Whether they have future space needs that could be accommodated in the downtown area - i.e. housing, classroom or office space, arts facilities, etc – or they utilize other properties that may result in the relocation of groups that could also be accommodated into the downtown - tracking and maintaining a close relationship with the UW is critical. Make sure that DECI and/or the BID have a representative who is fostering such communication, and keeping the UW aware of development opportunities in this area.”
Meanwhile, as the new Downtown Master Plan was being developed, key stakeholders in our community were working on a bold plan that would fulfill major aspects of our vision for Downtown Eau Claire. This vision had been in the works for over thirteen years. The groundwork was laid with the revitalization that had already taken place north of the Eau Claire River. Commonweal Development, Market and Johnson, and Bluegold Real Estate, came together to form Haymarket Concepts. They formulated the plan we now call “The Confluence Project”. Contrary to the opposition narrative which seems to imply that this idea was driven by the developers’ business plan, the idea was actually driven by years of visionary planning for our downtown. The proposal is not driving the vision, the vision drove the proposal.
Commonweal Development, Market & Johnson, and Bluegold Real Estate have been investing in our community for decades. They are all jewels of our economic success, and they have as much at stake in our future as any other business we have. They have answered a call from our community to build something bold and visionary. They are not engaging in “crony capitalism”, or “government corruption”. Nor are they taking advantage of taxpayers to line their pockets on a project that is a “want and not a need”. They have as much or more at stake in the success or failure of this project as anyone in the community and they deserve to be treated with respect.