Eau Claire is looking to add a new arts center to their downtown area. Called the Confluence, the project hopes to contribute new performing, visual and educational arts programs to both the community and the Eau Claire campus of the University of Wisconsin, as well as draw in new tourism and revive the downtown area. I spoke with Scott Morfitt, marketing director for the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center and Community for the Confluence, about the project.
Can you tell me a little bit about the Confluence Project?
It really is a community effort to build a multi-million dollar performing arts center that will combine constituent arts groups from Eau Claire with the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center, and then also university arts programming and classes.
How did it start? I know you mentioned that Justin Vernon played a role.
Well, he was the initial spokesman. It really did start as a collaboration between the city, the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center, some developers and then the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire. On UWEC’s end, they badly needed a new education space for their theater and music majors, just because they needed to have steady art equipment that you need to have a successful theater program.
And then conversely, our State Theatre which the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center operates, while it’s wonderful and historic, we don’t have space to expand it to meet the [technical] needs of bigger touring productions, both theatrical and musical, and then we only have one size venue. We really do need multiple size venues, which the Confluence Project provides.
So, it was in talks with those kinds of groups at first that this idea really started, and then what got it off the ground, really, was a community and grassroots movement of people that thought this was very important to our community. It went through two votes: one in Eau Claire County and one in the city of Eau Claire. In the city the vote was actually a referendum on referendums, and so that finally led to the city being able to approve it, and then the county was a referendum for their support.
So obviously the main goal is a new arts center for the university and the community, but your website also talks a little bit about the project being a catalyst for revitalizing the downtown area. Can you talk about that?
Yeah, we’ve already seen with companies like JAMF putting one of their Eau Claire headquarters right near that space, and other businesses investing…downtown Eau Claire, for a lot of years, sat kind of vacant, but over the past decade or so it’s really been coming back, and we’ve seen a lot of independent business owners and restaurant owners trying to really make it thrive. And we feel that this Confluence Project will be a catalyst for new businesses. We already see a Lismore hotel being built right across the street from where it will be. And a lot of those investments really are based on the Confluence Project becoming a thing. I mean, already working for the State Theatre I have to basically call around and make sure everybody knows the nights we have shows and stuff, because we see such a huge boom in our restaurant and tourism economy already. We just think that having this space, that we can attract bigger acts, and more diverse acts too. We’ll just bring in a lot more people to Eau Claire.
You even look at this festival [Eaux Claires] – we’re seeing a lot of people from Eau Claire who are going, and then people, you know from the region, the Cities, then nationwide…but we really do see that there is a real community support for something like this. That’s really what this is all about.
Let’s talk about some of the features of the Confluence. There’s obviously the arts center, and then there’s going to be an apartment building?
Right. Yeah, the apartment building was part of the Confluence Project from the beginning. But the apartment building is going to be mostly focused on university housing, and that’s a privately owned building that is part of this whole area of land down there. That part is actually being built already and will have some great riverfront restaurants and shops, which will be awesome.
And then the performing arts center – we’re kind of going through the final designs now, so things are a little fluid – but we’re looking at having a 1,400 seat theater, then a 400 seat theater, then another performing space, kind of like a black box idea. And then there’s plans for two visual arts galleries, and then there’s also going to be, in that same building, classrooms for university students and theater space.
Talk about the funding for this project. It’s coming from a lot of different places – private, public, donations…
Right. The funding for it was just recently approved in the Wisconsin state budget, and then both Eau Claire city and Eau Claire county have supported it. We see a strong philanthropy drive as well, that is still ongoing, and we’ve reached about $9 million of our $13 million goal, so we have a little bit more to go. But seeing the support at a city, county, state, and then community level, it’s really amazing. So the funding is coming from a lot of different places, which are kind of diverse, with a lot the constituents involved in the project.
Community for the Confluence will have an informational booth at the Eaux Claires music festival this weekend, located in the family area. For more information, visit communityfortheconfluence.org. For more information on the festival, check out our complete guide: everything you need to know about the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival.
Raisa Elhadi is a student at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities.