Frequently Asked Questions

Topics (click to view):     Confluence Project-What is it?       -       Referendum       -       Taxes                                                                             Sustainability & Heritage       -       Miscellaneous
 
 
Confluence Project - What is it?

bulletpoint    What area is encompassed by the proposed Confluence Project and why is it called the
Confluence?

The area covers three City blocks:

  • The first block of South Barstow (the street where the Scandinavian Import Shop is located);
  • The first block of Eau Claire Street (location of the former Farmer Store);
  • The first block of Graham Avenue (once home of Sikers Furniture Store and FS Appliances) from Eau Claire to Gibson Street.

It is called “Confluence" because the property is at the confluence (meeting point) of two rivers, the Chippewa and the Eau Claire.

 

bulletpoint    What is being built and where will it be located?

There are Four Major Areas:

  • Student housing/mixed-use building will cover the entire first block of Barstow and Eau Claire Street up to and including 0.4 acres of the Farmer Store Parking lot.  It will house as many as 375 students using a suite format. 
    No freshmen will be allowed.
  • Plaza – The balance of the Farmer Store Parking lot (1.1 acres) will become a decorative space between the student housing and the Performing Arts Center.
  • Performing Art Center will encompass the first block of Graham Avenue From Eau Claire Street to Gibson Street.
  • Parking Ramp - The City is planning to build a parking ramp at the site of the current post office for theater parking, 0.17 miles away.  If built, it will also be used by employees of JAMF and RCU and for the townspeople visiting the Farmer’s Market.

A sketch of the site plan follows.  Note: Barstow Street appears to be missing. It is mislabeled as Farwell.

Confluence Project Site Plan

 

bulletpoint    Can you provide more details of the proposed performing art center?  Planned size?  What will it contain?  Can you provide a floor plan or sketch?

The complex will be 150,000 square feet.

University Space -  54,000 square feet (36%) will be dedicated to the university as classroom, set building room and prop room space.  This space will be closed to community players and the public.

ECRAC Space -  10,000 square feet (7%) will be used for offices and exhibit space for ECRAC. Rental to ECRAC will be $66,000 per year and will be paid by the City.

Visit Eau Claire Space -  5,000 square feet (3%) will be dedicated to Visit Eau Claire.  Rent will be $50,000 and will be paid by the City.  Currently, Visit Eau Claire rents twice that amount of space at a cost of $37,400 per year.

Actual Theater Space -  81,000 square feet (54%) will be used for three theaters:

  • A 250 seat black box theater, a flexible space which can be used for banquets, wedding receptions or performances. There are many such spaces already in the City, e.g., the ECCT’s Oxford 275 theater; Little Grand’s 150 seat theater etc
  • A 450 seat theater intended to replace the 400 seat Kjer theater
  • A 1200-1500 seat theater (actual number of seats not yet determined) to replace the 1100 seat State Theatre.

There are no interior sketches. The only available exterior drawing is an artist’s rendering of two buildings and a plaza placed in an unknown setting. 

 

bulletpoint    If the Confluence Project proceeds, when will it be completed?

No one knows, but it may be six years or longer.  Other than securing demolition permits, the developers have done very little.   There are no sketches available for public consumption, much less architectural plans.  Specific studies that the City has requested on traffic and parking planning have yet to be completed.  The developers may need to provide an environmental impact study and will require a storm water permit from the DNR.  They, also, will need to work with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Department of Health & Services (DHS) to remediate asbestos and, in all probability, lead.  DNR involvement will trigger a Wisconsin Historical Society review, as the Kline building is a national historic building and several of the other buildings are contributors to the South Barstow Street’s blocks’ status as a national historic district.  There are, no doubt, other regulatory agencies that may become involved, e.g., FEMA and the Army Corp of Engineers because the area is in a flood plain.  Rebecca Noland, Finance Director of the City, does not expect the student housing building to be placed on the tax rolls until 2020, which would indicate a completion data of 2019, six years from now. 

 

bulletpoint     Who owns the Confluence Property?

First blocks of Graham and Eau Claire are owned by a partnership consisting of the developer (Commonweal Development Corp.), the construction company (Market & Johnson Inc.) and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Foundation.  The partnership is known as Haymarket Concepts LLC.

First block of South Barstow – the entire block is owned by John Mogenson, except for the Kline Department Store building (6 South Barstow), on which Mr. Mogenson has an option.  Haymarket Concepts, in turn, has an option to purchase the block from Mr. Mogenson.

Post Office - The City owns the Post Office building and land.  It has declared the Post Office building blighted due to evidence that there has been water in the basement and the fact that one of the walls has a crack.  It has asked the Post Office to leave the premises by September, 2014, so that it can raze the building and build the parking ramp./p>

 

bulletpoint     Given the status of the project, can you tell me why the South Barstow tenants were given less than 90 days notice to be out of the buildings by March 31? One of the tenants, the Scandinavian Shop has been at 16 South Barstow for 43 years.

The University Foundation/Commonweal/Market & Johnson partnership has made as a condition to purchase the requirement that Mr. Mogenson deliver the property without tenants.  In order to sell the property, he asked the tenants to leave by March 31, 2014.

 

Referendum

bulletpoint    The County referendum is a straight forward yes or no – it’s clear that if I want to pay for the project, I vote yes and if I don’t want to pay, I vote no. Why is the City referendum so different? What does it mean that I am being given “a say”?

The County Board was comfortable with the taxpayers making the final decision and made its pledge to the Confluence project subject to the citizens’ votes.  The majority of the City Council members, in particular the President, were opposed to the citizens having any kind of say on the Confluence project, despite the fact that there were many taxpayers who questioned the project during City Council hearings.  Some of the Council persons commented repeatedly that the citizens were not capable of making the right decision.  The city attorney stated that he had made it nearly impossible for the citizens to write a referendum that would be legitimate direct legislation and maintained that the pledge he had drafted “trumped” any possibility of a valid referendum.  Drafting a valid referendum under State law is a challenge that contains many pitfalls for the unwary.  Among other things, the referendum cannot repeal an existing law and must be legislative rather than administrative in nature.  Accordingly, after consulting with an attorney who is an expert in municipal law, the charter amendment referendum was drafted.  In less than a month, nearly 5,000 signatures were secured.  The format and language used on the referendum had been tested in a case that went to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.  As such, the City attorney had to agree that the referendum language was legitimate.  If it passes on April 1, construction on the Confluence Project (or any similar project that costs more than $1 million), cannot begin until the taxpayers have the opportunity to vote via referendum for or against the project.  As part of the referendum, the City is required to provide the estimated capital cost of the project, as well as operating cost of the resulting facility, so the taxpayer can make an informed decision.  The referendum gives the taxpayers a real say on these kinds of projects.

 

bulletpoint    Are members of “Voters for Facts” against the Arts? Why isn’t the City Referendum limited to the Confluence project?

Far from it.  Many of the volunteers are ardent supporters of the arts.  Some have children that are involved in theater.  The volunteers are concerned that as a result of the additional expense inherent in the proposed Confluence facility, ticket prices will become unaffordable to families and the arts will die.  Members are also concerned about the Confluence venue being as accessible to local theater groups as The State Theatre has been.

The reason the referendum is drafted in the fashion you see stems from the manner in which the city attorney wrote the pledge document.  Specific reference to the Confluence project would have been deemed either an attempt to repeal the pledge or administrative rather than legislative in nature and a basis for the city attorney to question the legality of the resulting referendum.  Accordingly, selecting broad language was deemed necessary to prevent the city attorney from advising the Council that the language of the referendum was illegal.  Had he done so, the referendum would not have been placed on the April 1, 2014 ballot and you would not have an opportunity to have a say on the Confluence project.

 

bulletpoint    Isn't one million dollars an awfully low threshold for a referendum?

Not at all – $1 million is a standard threshold.  The State requires school districts to conduct a referendum on any capital project that is $1 million or more.  Most of the City projects that are on the future Capital Improvement Plan are well below $1 million.

 

bulletpoint    Won't people always vote "no" so that projects that could be beneficial won't ever get of the ground?

If that were true, there would be no schools.  If the project makes sense and will truly benefit the community, the people will vote for it.  It is, after all, their City, not the reverse.  The referendum does require the City staff to provide information to the voters on the costs and benefits of the project to enable the voters to determine whether the project is truly of value.

 

bulletpoint    Isn't it costly to conduct a referendum?

Referenda are only costly if they are conducted outside of a normal election.  During even numbered years, there are at least three elections (City Council, primary, and federal House of Representative elections) and during the odd years, there is at least one election (City Council).  There is no need for special elections.  In the case of the Confluence project, the referendum could be voted on during the upcoming August 12, 2014 primary.  That will enable the operation plan (scheduled to be formulated in May) to be completed and cost information provided on anticipated theater losses.

 

bulletpoint    Won't a referendum potentially delay a project?

No – capital projects are proposed years in advance. Note the City’s current capital improvement plan covers a five year span.  In the case of the Confluence, it was first proposed in May 2012.  There have been multiple elections that have occurred since then including a presidential election, a primary, a recall election, and two city council elections.

 

Taxes

bulletpoint    Will my property taxes increase because of the Confluence Project?  If so, by how much?

Answer: Your property taxes will increase.  If the project is entirely funded as planned through Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) debt, property taxes on a home assessed at $150,000 will increase annually by more than $38. 

 

bulletpoint    Will my property taxes increase once the theater is in operation?  It is my understanding that theaters lose money.

Answer: Yes.  At this point, there is no operation plan, so it is not possible to estimate the extent of the annual loss and the resulting tax increase.  By law, the City must balance its budget. It can balance the budget using borrowed funds, however, it can only borrow to support capital projects like new buildings or infrastructure. Thus, it cannot directly borrow to cover operation losses.  The City, however, can offset the loss on the theater indirectly by borrowing for the kinds of capital projects that it has traditionally budgeted out of annual tax receipts, e.g., major road maintenance.  The form of debt used for capital projects is general obligation debt, which obligates the taxpayers.  When new debt increases the City’s annual interest and principal payments, the City can raise (and recently has been raising) property taxes to cover the increased debt service costs.

 

Sustainability & Heritage

bulletpoint     Doesn’t the Confluence Project run counter to this city’s recently adopted Sustainability Health Chapter and basic sustainability principles?

Yes in several ways.  Whenever possible, old buildings are to be repurposed rather than torn down to conserve resources and energy and in the case of historical buildings, to preserve our heritage.   A second major concern is flooding.  New construction is supposed to be built away from waterways not on their banks.  Third the location of the new performing art centers and student housing will necessitate considerable bussing between the campus and downtown. That runs counter to two goals – increased personal fitness through exercise (in particular walking) and decreased use of vehicles that use energy and emit exhaust.

 

bulletpoint     I walked through the building with national registry status, the Kline Department Store building, during the March 15 auction and saw no signs of blight.  The building was in mint condition other than a small area of the basement (10’ by 15’) where the concrete was cracked and buckled and some sagging of the ceiling next to the downstairs elevator. As the building is in great shape and is on the national registry, why does it not enjoy local landmark status and the protections that go with it?

The City’s Landmark Commission did confer local landmark status.  The City Council overruled that decision 6 to 5 on appeal. There was considerable misleading testimony before the Council to the effect that the building was a wreck and could not be repaired at a reasonable cost.  The Council failed to ask and the attorney provided no guidance on two key issues that are part of the appeal process - self inflicted hardship and financial gain.  No information on either subject was secured.  The majority of the Council concluded that to do anything but demolish the building would result in hardship to the owner, who had planned to renovate the building and move her restaurant, the Acoustic Café, to this historic location.  Due to the failure to secure testimony on either the self inflicted hardship or financial gain issues, there was no basis for seeking a writ of mandamus to overturn the Council’s decision.

 

bulletpoint     I have heard that the Kline Building is being effectively demolished contrary to the State Natural Resources law on asbestos remediation and contrary to specific warnings and instructions of a Department of Natural Resource Official.  Is that true?

Unfortunately, yes.  During the March 15 auction of the contents of the Kline building, the owner and auctioneer had been instructed by the DNR to advise purchasers that anything attached to the realty would be not be available until immediately prior to demolition, as a DNR investigation for asbestos and other contaminants was required.  If the object purchased was contaminated with asbestos, the sale would be void.  The auctioneer instead sold everything in the building, including the wiring, without condition and asked that all purchases be removed prior to March 31.  Much damage was done before the DNR learned that the law and its instructions had been disregarded. The City Health inspector stopped any further destruction on the morning of March 19.

Click here to see the damage done to the building.

Click here to see a news video of the auction at the Kline building before the damage.

 

bulletpoint     I heard that the City sold the building, at 2 South Barstow (one of the contributing buildings to the historical Confluence Block) for $5.00 with the understanding that it would be renovated in keeping with the history of the block and that the resulting property would have an assessed value of $800,000 by January 1, 2013.  Is that true?  If so, why has the building instead been allowed to turn into such a wreck?  Who is getting the proceeds of the sale to the Haymarket Partnership?

Yes, it is true. The contract can be found by clicking here.  Despite the fact that the contract has been breached (the building has not been renovated, but instead allowed to deteriorate so that it is now both an eyesore and an ordinance violation), the City has conferred yet another benefit to the owner – giving him authorization to sell the building to the Haymarket Partnership at full market value and to keep the proceeds (as long as the new owner agrees to pay taxes at the rate of $17,500 per year and provides the city with a bike path easement).  Rebecca Noland, Finance Director of the City, has confirmed that the City has conferred that benefit – Click Here.  Without this building, the owner does not have a block of buildings to sell and, as such, for purposes of the sale of the Barstow block to the Haymarket Partnership, 2 South Barstow is arguably the most valuable building on the block.  Instead of providing a windfall to the party that breached his contract, the city could have secured the proceeds for the benefit of the taxpayers and used them to pay back a portion of the dollars it has borrowed from general taxpayer funds to develop the Barstow Street area.  Alternatively, it could use the funds to pay back some of the debt on the development.

 

bulletpoint     Wouldn’t it be a good idea to combine the façades of the historical building with the Performing Art Center?  That way we would preserve and celebrate an important part of our history while enjoying the potential benefits of the new center.

That is a good idea.  State law, however, is designed to protect historical buildings like the ones on Barstow Street, not destroy them.  Since the State would own 50% of the proposed Confluence performing art center, the center cannot, per State, law be built on the site.  Although protected from destruction by the State, only buildings with local landmark status enjoy similar protection when used for private purposes.  6 South Barstow, the Kline Department Store, is listed on the national registry and briefly enjoyed local landmark status when the Landmark Commission conferred that status in October, 2013.  The City Council, however, overturned that decision in early December.  That decision enabled The Haymarket Partnership to destroy the historical building as long as it decided to place the “private” student housing on the historical site and locate the theaters on the side without historical significance.

 

bulletpoint     I have heard that the City attorney concluded that the downtown Post Office is a blighted property.  When I visit, I see no sign of blight.  Why is it considered blighted?

The City’s definition of blight has become very broad.  In the case of the Post Office it is based on such things as undesirable layout (designed to be a post office with functions that are now obsolete), unrepaired cracks in cinder block walls, floors and walls containing asbestos, location in a flood plain with evidence of prior flooding, presence of sub surface coal tar deposit on the western part of the site, which will require “eventual remediation”, and a presence in a mapped, but not yet dedicated area for a road and bike trail extension.  Those factors were deemed by the city attorney to be sufficient to designate the building as blighted.  That designation enables the city to raze a seemingly good building at taxpayer expense (the proposed parking ramp is slated to be on the site of the Post Office).  Other examples of blight include buildings that were in everyday use by successful businesses, e.g., Bartingale’s.  In these instances the City Redevelopment Authority (RDA) has purchased or plans to purchase the building (typically with federal funds or state funds available to clear “blight”) and pays to relocate the businesses elsewhere.  Most recently, the RDA plans to recommend to the City Council the purchase of the Charlson building for $360,000.  That will enable the owner to sell the going concern to its employees, who will move it to a less costly venue and secure full market value for the building at taxpayer expense.  The plan is to raze all of these buildings, clean up any potential pollution, and turn them into recreational areas or sell them to private businessmen, all at City expense.  In the interim, properties that were providing much needed tax dollars have been removed from the tax rolls and are sitting empty and deteriorating –  eye sores in the making.

 

bulletpoint     I have heard that there are environmental and potential structural issues with the land on which the Confluence Project is to be built and that the owners have stated that they will not develop the land without city funding. Is this true?

You are correct. One of the Haymarket Concepts, LLC partners, Commonweal, is on record stating:

The TIF funding support is not driven by building use.  It simply recognizes the development in an urban site with existing buildings, unstable and potentially contaminated soils and need for underground parking is more expensive than typical sites. . . . It is not realistic to expect that private development could or will occur on this site without the benefit of this municipal financing mechanism.

Click here to view the entire statement.

 

Miscellaneous

bulletpoint    What will happen to the State Theatre?

No one knows.  The company that performed the feasibility study for the performing art center concluded that the proposed center would not be viable if the State was also operating.  It required that all State Theatre events be relocated to the proposed Art Center and that the State Theatre no longer be utilized as a performing art center.  That would mean that once the center opens, the State could no longer be used for theatrical performances.  ECRAC, the current owner of the theatre, plans to move to the center and will be paying $66,000 per year (courtesy of the city) for offices and exhibit space at the new facility.  That will leave the State without either occupants or rental revenue.

 

bulletpoint    What can we do to make our downtown thrive like Stillwater and Redwing, Minnesota, and La Crosse?  Isn’t the Confluence project the key?

Actually, it isn’t.  Unlike Eau Claire, which is about to destroy its historic Confluence district, each of these towns has preserved its historic buildings and used them as tourist attractions to bring people downtown.  Neither Stillwater nor Redwing has a theater. La Crosse just opened its theater in January 2013.  No taxpayer funds were used.  Instead, there was a massive and very successful joint community and university (Viterbo) fund raising effort.

 

bulletpoint    Isn’t the State of Wisconsin going to spend $25 million any way to build a theater to replace Kjer and classrooms?  Wouldn’t we be better off pooling our funds?

The building the University is seeking is comparable to that which La Crosse built for $9.7 million – classrooms, set room, prop room, black box, and a 450 seat theater.  Reasonably, a fraction of the proposed $25 million expenditure is needed to secure that which the university desires.

 

bulletpoint     Shouldn’t we emulate La Crosse and build a Convention Center instead? I hear that the Center provides La Crosse with incredible hotel business and is the key to its vibrant downtown.

We should not emulate La Crosse unless we wish to increase our debt and property taxes.  The current annual subsidy for the La Crosse center is $1.7 million per year.  This money comes out of hotel and general tax revenues.  The center needs a major renovation despite the fact that the debt from the last renovation has yet to be paid off.  More debt will be incurred.  In contrast, Eau Claire’s hotel tax revenues are comparable to La Crosse’s and we are able to use the taxes to support a variety of community organizations rather than just a center.  Taxes in La Crosse are very high. Taxpayers pay $929 (27%) more in property tax than Eau Claire on a house assessed at $150,000.

 

bulletpoint     Is there anything I can do to help Voters with Facts?

To find out more about how you can help, please email us at help@confluencereferendum.com .

You may, also, help by sharing our website information with your family and friends.