City of Eau Claire Voter Approval of Performing Arts Building Initiative (April 2014)

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A City of Eau Claire Voter Approval of Performing Arts Building Initiative, ballot question was on the April 1, 2014 election ballot for voters in the city of Eau Claire, the county seat of Eau Claire County, Wisconsin, where it was defeated.

If approved, this measure would have required voter approval in a city wide referendum before the city would authorize any contribution higher than $1 million to the construction of a performing arts building. The initiative, backed by the Citizen Referendum Committee, targeted the proposed $50 million Confluence Project to build a new performing arts building, to which the city had pledged $5 million in subsidies. Although the approval of this initiative did not directly refer to the funding of the Confluence Project, it would have necessitated voter approval before the project could continue and would have triggered a referendum question on the November ballot asking voters whether or not the city should go through with the $5 million subsidy.[1]

Another ballot measure was be on the April 1 ballot for voters throughout the entire county. This measure asked voters directly if they approved or disapproved of a $3.5 million contribution to the Confluence project to be made by the county. It was approved.[2]

Election results

City of Eau Claire Referendum
Defeatedd No8,09559.18%
Yes 5,584 40.82%
Election results from the Eau Claire County elections department.

Text of measure

Descriptive title

The descriptive title of the ordinance proposed for approval by this ballot measure was:[3]

A Charter Ordinance enacted pursuant to the provisions of S.66.0101, Wisconsin Statutes, to require that certain building projects constructed with funds of the city or a city entity shall be submitted to referendum prior to construction.[4]

Ballot question

The question on the ballot was:

Shall a charter ordinance be enacted that would require a binding referendum before $1,000,000 or more in city funds can be expended on any building construction that is planned for dramatic, musical, or artistic performances?[1][4]

Petition summary

The summary found on the circulated petitions read as follows:[3]

Prior to the start of any physical construction of any municipally financed (in whole or in part) project which includes a building planned for dramatic, musical, or artistic performances, requiring a capital expenditure by the City, or by any entity created by the City, of one million dollars or more, the City Council shall submit to the electorate a binding referendum for approval of the project. Failure of the binding referendum shall preclude the City of City entity from proceeding with the project. The wording of any referendum shall provide the specific purpose, location and cost of the project and an estimate of operating costs which will be provided by the City or a City entity. Nothing in this provision shall be construed to preclude the City from exercising its role in the planning or design of such publicly financed projects.

This ordinance shall be in full force and effect upon passage and publication as provided by law.[4]




  • Councilwoman Monica Lewis
  • Councilman Dave Duax
  • Citizen Referendum Committee
  • Voters with Facts[5]

Duax said, “In the end the people rule, and we have to yield to what they want."[1]

Lewis said, “I’m going to be happy that this goes to ballot, but I think it’s sad that some people say that they hope it can be defeated in court."[1]

Arguments in favor

Supporters of the initiative argued that the initiative would give voters an important say in large expenditures by the city and that it would help to achieve fiscal responsibility and discernment in the selection of construction projects. Proponents also argued that large city funding of performing arts projects affected the taxes of all city residents but only benefited the residents who participated or valued performing arts. They concluded that such city funding should be approved by all city voters.[2]



  • Community for the Confluence[6]
  • Members of the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire Student Senate
  • City Councilman Eric Larsen
  • Councilman Dave Klinkhammer
  • Voiced for Growth
  • Clear Vision Eau Claire[7]

The Eau Claire Regional Art Center (ECRAC) supported the Confluence project and opposed any effort that endangers the possibility of its construction.[8]

Arguments against

Russel Van Gompel discusses how the referendum would affect the Confluence and other Arts projects

Critics of the initiative, especially those associated with the University of Wisconsin, have expressed concern that the initiative would inhibit the construction, rehabilitation and improvement of performing arts centers and buildings on campus. Specifically, opponents referred to facilities at Carson Park and Hobbs Ice Center, which buildings were often used to host performing arts related activities. The ordinance proposed by this measure would have required voter approval of any repair or renovation on these buildings costing the city more than $1 million. Critics were also concerned that voters did not realize these far-reaching effects of a yes vote on the April referendum question.[9]

Jake Wrasse, the UW-Eau Claire Student Senate intergovernmental affairs director, said, "We want to make sure the discussion about what this referendum could do, what it really means, has occurred. We want voters to know what they're voting on. This vote is about much more than just the Confluence."[9]

Eau Claire City Manager Russell Van Gompel also expressed concern over the risk of voter confusion on the issue. He said, "What people need to understand is the fact that this changes the way we approve capital projects. This is really about requiring a binding referendum for projects of $1 million or more for dramatic, musical or artistic performances. The problem is projects related to the definition of dramatic, musical or artistic performances are open to interpretation."[9]

Van Gompel also said that approval of this measure could take decision-making power away from the City Council members and stated that he worried the law could lead to many lawsuits.[9]

Klinkhammer said, “My objection is that it is bad law. It is confusion. It is not accurate. If it was a vote about the Confluence ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ it would make sense. That’s not what this referendum’s about, but that’s the way it was explained.”[1]

The group Community for the Confluence put together a series of videos about the confluence project, including one of City Manager Russell Van Gompel discussing the effects this ballot measure could have on the confluence project. This video is featured on the right.

The Confluence project

The Confluence project, which fueled this initiative, was named for its proposed location at the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers in downtown Eau Claire, commonly called the "Haymarket Site." The site was set along Eau Claire Street and Graham Avenue. The completed project was designed to be a mixture of a community arts center, retail/commercial space, parking and university student housing. The general development plan included the possibility of expanding the project along South Barstow Street. The Eau Claire Regional Arts Council (ECRAC), along with community performing and fine arts organizations and the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire, were given access to the arts center by the proposed agreement.[10]

A rendition of the proposed Confluence development

The arts center plans included:[10]

  • A 1,200-1500 seat theater to replace downtown Eau Claire's obsolete State Theatre
  • A 450-seat theater to replace UW-Eau Claire’s aging Ker Theatre;
  • A 250-seat black box-style venue;
  • Scene and costume shops;
  • Dressing rooms and other “back of house” operations;
  • Fine arts studios, gallery space and dance studio space;
  • Classrooms and rehearsal rooms;
  • Offices for ECRAC, community arts organizations and select university faculty and staff in the fine and performing arts.

Preliminary plans for the other commercial/retail space included:[10]

  • space suitable for restaurants/bars, coffee houses, retail, offices and other commercial uses;
  • a parking structure;
  • About 100 apartments for university student housing. These apartments would be privately owned and operated and would add approximately 300-375 residents to the downtown area.

The project also included plans for:[10]

  • A public plaza located on the site of the Haymarket parking lot;
  • A bridge across the Eau Claire River to connect the new plaza and the Phoenix Park;
  • The cultivation and development of riverfront trails;
  • Open space development along the trails.

Path to the ballot

See also: Laws governing local ballot measures in Wisconsin

The Citizen Referendum Committee turned in signature petitions on December 26, 2013, and the petitions were certified as sufficient by the City Clerk, forcing the city council to either pass the initiative as submitted or put it to a city wide vote. The city council voted nine to one to put the proposed ordinance before the city electors instead of directly enacting it.[1]

Responses to the election

Below are some of the notable responses to the election results of the Eau Claire city and county measures relating to the Confluence Project.

Chamber of Commerce

The following is a statement from Darin McFadden, Chair of the Board of Directors for the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce:

Our Chamber Board would like to congratulate the project organizers on the positive result from the ballot issues in the April 1 election, which makes it possible for the Confluence Project to move onto the next stage for approval. We appreciate that a strong majority of city and county voters recognize that this project represents not only a wise public expenditure but it also serves as a sensible investment into our local economy.

The mission of the Chamber is to serve as “the advocate of business, striving to enhance and protect the business environment and the quality of life" in the Chippewa Valley. The Chamber believes strongly in this mission and firmly believes the project will enhance the economic vitality of the community while fulfilling community cultural needs. This is why our Chamber Board of Directors unanimously voted in favor of supporting this project in 2012 and reaffirmed it last December.

Although we’re very pleased with today’s ballot results, the Chamber recognizes that there is still a lot of work yet to be done before the Confluence Project becomes a reality. Enlisting philanthropic support will be one of the next critical steps to ensure that the decision makers in Madison clearly understand that our community stands ready to support this project. With more than one-third of the total amount required already raised, the Chamber is very pleased that many of our members have already stepped forward with their generous support. Companies like RCU, JAMF Software, Charter Bank, US Bank, and Northwestern Bank are a few early supporters.

Finalizing the State of Wisconsin’s contribution for UW-Eau Claire’s share of the project is also a critical next step, and our Chamber stands ready to work with project organizers to ensure that the State of Wisconsin recognizes our community supports the Confluence Project. [4]

—Darin McFadden, Chair of the Board of Directors for the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce, [7]

Citizens Referendum Committee

The following is a statement from Citizens Referendum Committee:

We are grateful to all the volunteers who worked so hard to insure that the citizens of Eau Claire had the right to vote on this important topic. Voter turnout was high, and the conversation on the confluence project dominated our spring thaw. We at the CRC hope that our leaders recognize all the great things that came from placing such an important decision in the hands of the voters and continue to involve the community as the project evolves. We had one simple mantra - "Let the people vote." - They have. [4]

—Mike Bollinger, Judy Olson and Larry Balow of the Citizens Referendum Committee, [7]

Representative Dana Wachs

Rep. Dana Wachs (D-91), who represents Eau Claire, said:

Yesterday’s election was a truly unique event in the history of Eau Claire and one of the most encouraging. Voters have proven that they support the Confluence Project and what it means for the future of Eau Claire. This has been a strong collaborative effort that we can all be proud of.

There is still a lot of work to be done. I look forward to working with local and state officials and my colleagues in the Legislature to make this project a reality. [4]

Rep. Dana Wachs (D-91), [7]

Voters with Facts

The pro-initiative group Voters With Facts issued the following statement:

Voters with Facts thanks its volunteers and the many citizens that supported its efforts. We were pleased at the turn out and impressed by the number of “yes” votes for the City referendum. The 5,584 “yes” votes are a significant number. They constitute 91% of the total votes cast during last year’s City Council election and more than any one of the individual at large council members received. Given that Voters with Facts was out spent by a ratio in excess of 20 to 1, the number of misleading statements made by the pro-confluence groups that were repeated by the media, and the minimal press (mostly negative) coverage, this is truly a remarkable result. Going forward, Voters With Facts expects the City and Council to recognize the fact that there are a substantial number of citizens that are concerned about the Confluence Project and henceforth provide full and honest disclosure of the impact of proposed actions on property taxes, debt, and future budgets.

Voters with Facts will continue in its role as a grassroots organization that provides facts to taxpayers. [4]

—Voters with Facts, [7]

Clear Vision Eau Claire

The group called Clear Vision Eau Claire had this to say in response to the voters support of the Confluence Project:

The Clear Vision Eau Claire Board of Directors is pleased the outcomes of the City of Eau Claire and Eau Claire County votes on referendum questions related to the Confluence Project verify what the Clear Vision process first identified in fall 2007 – that improved events facilities are a high priority for our community.

The overwhelming votes of support affirm that our community is ready to embrace the strategic change necessary to enhance quality of life and spur economic development, as outlined in the initial Clear Vision report – which was developed through input from hundreds of our fellow citizens.

Clear Vision Eau Claire will continue to be active in the development of the Confluence Project and engaged in the public work necessary to achieve it. [4]

—Clear Vision Eau Claire, [7]

Similar measures

Other 2014 measures requiring similar voter approval before public spending on sports arena's could be approved included:

Proposed ballot measures that were not on a ballot City of Sacramento Voter approval for Public Funding of Professional Sports Arena Act, STOP Initiative (June 2014)
Proposed ballot measures that were not on a ballot City of Columbus Blue Jackets’ Nationwide Arena Bailout Initiative (May 2014)

Related measures

Approveda Eau Claire County Confluence Project Funding Referendum (April 2014)

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