Unless you’re Disney, there are some undertakings too big to accomplish on your own. Teamwork is required.
The Confluence Center, at the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers in Eau Claire, is such a project because it twines the assets and ambitions of multiple entities, dovetailing academia, business, the arts and more and breathing new life into a prime site.
The Confluence Center keeps pace with Phoenix Park, literally a stone’s throw away, with its upscale retail, thriving businesses, tony housing and top-notch bike paths and walking trails, and thus extends the revitalization of downtown Eau Claire while providing state-of-the-art performing spaces for Eau Claire’s vigorous arts entities.
It’s also projected to be a booster to existing downtown businesses, gathering patrons of the arts from near and far, who are likely to also patronize Barstow, adjacent businesses and motels, shops and restaurants about town too.
More than a decade ago, officials determined that restoring The State Theater was cost-prohibitive. It would take tens of millions of dollars and there were site challenges. Likewise, there was a leaky, wheezy building at the Confluence, largely underutilized. Upgraded performing spaces were needed and UW-Eau Claire also needed more student housing, classrooms and practice areas. So, a team was assembled to raise money and meet multiple needs.
Mike Rindo, assistant chancellor for facilities and university relations at UW-Eau Claire, said, “This has been an amazing public-private collaboration resulting in an arts center that vastly exceeds what any one of the organizations or entities involved could have done alone. While such a large-scale collaboration brings with it challenges — seeing the totality of the Confluence Project coming to fruition is beyond rewarding. I believe this project also has set a new standard for how we, as a community and region, can and will work together to accomplish big things well into the future.”
To collaborate, Haymarket was created.
Kimera M. Way, president of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation and executive director of university advancement, said, “Haymarket LLC was established as a partnership between Blugold Real Estate, a subsidiary of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation, and MarCom, a private developer group in Eau Claire (Market and Johnson and Commonweal). Haymarket was formed in 2011 to enter into an option to purchase property located at the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers in downtown Eau Claire. The goal in acquiring the property was to construct a shared community arts facility for the university and community’s benefit and a mixed-use building consisting of apartments housing up to 400 students with retail on the first floor.”
The site was attractive for a number of reasons: its relative proximity to campus, glittering rivers on two sides, and abutting the successful and attractive North Barstow redevelopment, with the gardens, Eau Claire Farmers Market and retail and housing mixed-use development.
“Given the successful development across the river, the Haymarket LLC partners felt this project and its alignment with the Clear Vision city planning and the university’s long-term plans created the perfect motivation to move forward,” Way said.
The local arts community wasn’t the only entity needing a new performing space.
“Both the university and the community share a need for a performing arts center and a fine arts center. The facilities, which could be combined or stand-alone, would replace the Kjer Theatre and expand the community’s arts venues. The university welcomes joint facilities in a location that supports both university and community needs, whether on campus or in close proximity to it.”
Needs were identified. Now money needed to be raised, an amalgam of philanthropy, new market tax credits, two referendums, which both passed, and city, county and state grants. Of course, there were speed bumps. A total of $25 million was requested from the state; $15 million was offered.
“The project was pulled out of the budget at the joint finance committee,” Way said.
A pulled project is usually down and dead.
“However, thanks to the bipartisan heroics of our area legislators, funding for the project was restored in the budget as a $15 million non-state agency grant,” she said.
It wasn’t all speed bumps. At other times, wheels were greased, rolling the project forward.
“The philanthropy goal originally was $13.5 million — to date we have raised close to $20 million in private funds in support of the project,” Way said.
Pluck, perseverance and collaboration won out.
“The varied collaborations, hard work of a dedicated group of individuals who absolutely refused to quit and the motto of always doing what is right for the project is what has made the Pablo Center at the Confluence a reality,” she said.
The opening of the Confluence Center will happen this September, but it’s already reverberated downtown.
“Almost immediately after we announced plans for the Haymarket development — the mixed-use building and the arts center — there was a new buzz and interest in building in downtown,” Way said
That buzz led to building, beginning with the JAMF corporation contacting the Haymarket partners, wanting to build as close as possible to the Confluence. The building was contagious.
“The renovations of the Oxbow and Lismore hotels and other housing and business developments, we believe, were spurred on by the Haymarket/Confluence projects,” Way said. “More than $100 million in new construction came about after our project’s announcement.”
And it’s ongoing, with the new parking garage in North Barstow, the Haymarket plaza, the new pedestrian bridge and even the bridge lighting projects.
“They unlikely would not have occurred had it not been for this project,” she said.
The bus stop outside of Haymarket has become the busiest during the academic year and the uptick in foot traffic is clear. That’s due in part to The Haymarket Landing apartments, which opened in the fall of 2016, providing safe and secure housing for UW-Eau Claire students.
“The infusion of 400 students living downtown has also created a young ‘vibe’ in downtown Eau Claire,” she said. “We hear many comments about how busy and alive downtown has become in the last seven years.”
More people downtown triggers more investment in downtown.
Stuart Schaefer, owner of Commonweal Development, said, “We think this project has already demonstrated its impact as the ultimate game-changer for Eau Claire’s downtown, especially the South Barstow area which was stagnant at best before the Confluence Project was announced. Over 11,000 of the community’s 53,000 employees (21 percent) now work in the downtown area. The vacancy rate of residential and commercial buildings in downtown Eau Claire has decreased significantly as demand continues to grow for those seeking to be part of the new community.”
Cole Margenau, manager at The Livery, said, “With the opening of the Confluence Center, we do expect to see an uptick in business. I think it’s going to bring new people to the area who are interested in seeing what downtown Eau Claire has to offer. Our clientele will diversify as well as increase.”
Business benefits beyond downtown
New businesses, new buildings, increased foot traffic and more residents downtown doesn’t mean the positive reverberations of the Confluence Center are limited to downtown businesses.
Schaefer said, “Many local business leaders have expressed their gratitude. According to them, we have created an environment in which they can better recruit and retain talented employees.”
Many companies are doing more than articulate gratitude. They’re putting their money where their mouths are.
Schaefer said, “Many companies now show a strong interest in donating, investing or partnering in the project, due to the recent awareness of the opportunities associated with the project.”
The creativity required to realize such a complex, intertwined project is contagious.
“Employers increasingly recognize the potential provided by the project to test and implement workforce development and business innovation concepts,” he said. “This potentiality has yet to be fully realized, but the new interest is very exciting.”
And all this happened before the Pablo Center has even opened.
The Pablo Center at the Confluence is the arts component of the Confluence Center, including a 1,200-seat theatre, a flexible 400-seat theatre, rehearsal, dance and community rooms, visual arts studio and galleries. Jason Jon Anderson, executive director of The Pablo, expects an immediate impact on Eau Claire’s downtown.
“With over 100,000 unique visitors expected in our inaugural year and with more than 101 shows on our calendar, we expect a dramatic increase in foot traffic in the downtown area,” Anderson said.
The grand opening celebration will be Saturday, Sept. 22, and is free and open to the public. Details will be released later this summer and it will serve up entertainment that once required road trips.
“Pablo Center is producing a variety of events for our Pablo Presents series and our Pablo Hosts series. They will both provide the region a variety of entertainment options that would have otherwise had to drive to a major metropolitan area to experience in the past.”
It’s not just patrons of the arts who are excited.
“Local business leaders are excited for their employees to come and experience all that Pablo Center has to offer and what it represents,” he said. “They are intrigued and motivated by our Regional Innovation Cluster program and what that can do for local industry.”
Way is also thrilled.
“I can’t wait for the Pablo to open this fall,” she said. “I have to pinch myself every time I tour the Pablo because it’s so hard to believe this is actually going to happen.”
Why it happened
The Confluence Center will fully open in September not just because obstacles were met and overcome and local people reached deep into their pockets. It happened because of sustained collaboration.
“Collaborations that work over an extended period of time are extremely rare,” Schaefer said. “With various competing interests and visions, maintaining harmonious coordination provides a formidable challenge. Considering the number of project partners involved, we faced a substantial risk of losing sight of our unique, shared goal.”
Staying focused on that goal reaped rewards for all.
“It has been challenging, but rewarding,” Schaefer said. “The project has truly been a testament to the ability of our region and our community to productively collaborate.”
Way considers this accomplishment rare.
“Collaborations mean every participant has to check his/her ego at the door,” she said. “We have been really lucky in that the majority of the people involved with the project have always kept the project and its best interests at the forefront of their decisions and actions. I’m really not sure how many other communities could do what we have done. I’ve had a chance to talk with colleagues around the country about this project and the multiple partners, and they simply can’t believe we’ve been able to do it.”
Way said, “Community support and collaboration has been the hallmark of the project. Seeing the area emerge as an energetic cultural center with greater integration of the university into the community also constitutes a noteworthy and rewarding accomplishment.”
And the collaboration that built the Confluence Center rivaled its namesake.
Anderson said, “It is truly a confluence of ideas, values and beliefs with a sole mission to support the creative economy in the Chippewa Valley and region.”
If they had to do again, would they?
Way said, “Being a part of this since inception has been amazingly humbling, invigorating, exhausting and, most of all, immensely rewarding experience. And I’d do it all again tomorrow.”
“Employers increasingly recognize the potential provided by the project to test and implement workforce development and business innovation concepts. This potentiality has yet to be fully realized, but the new interest is very exciting.” Stuart Schaefer, owner of Commonweal Development
“The varied collaborations, hard work of a dedicated group of individuals who absolutely refused to quit and the motto of always doing what is right for the project is what has made the Pablo Center at the Confluence a reality.” Kimera M. Way, president of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation and executive director of university advancement