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Zimmerman: 'Dog fight' for UWRF project funding in Madison

Shannon Zimmerman said he doesn't sneeze at $1 million, but he knew it wouldn't give a proposed UW-River Falls project the lift it needed.

He also knew its prospects were beyond dim as his Joint Finance Committee colleagues prepared Tuesday, June 11, to parse out funding for state building projects — a list that included the proposed UWRF science and technology building.

"This thing was dead 24 hours earlier," said Zimmerman, a River Falls Republican.

But he said his willingness to be the "squeaky wheel" advocate, along with help from the university's chancellor, helped double the project's initial funding offer when the Joint Finance Committee convened this week.

The Joint Finance Committee on Tuesday allocated $2 million toward designs for the university's Science and Technology Innovation Center (SciTech). The figure is $1 million more than what Gov. Tony Evers requested in his budget.

The joint-finance budget will go before the Assembly and Senate before a final budget is sent to Evers.

The $2 million would go toward design costs for the SciTech project, which comes with an overall $111 million price tag. University officials said passage of the initial design funding request could pave the way for construction funds in the 2021-23 budget.

UW-System originally sought $4.25 million for SciTech designs. Zimmerman said support among joint finance leaders flagged after UWRF leaders learned on June 10 the initial figure generated by UW-System had been miscalculated and was actually $2 million.

He said that revelation planted seeds of doubt among the co-chairs of the committee.

"Basically, they abandoned it," he said.

While joint finance leadership was willing to consider the $1 million requested by Evers, Zimmerman said that figure "would not have done it."

He said that set off a two-pronged effort between him and UWRF Chancellor Dean Van Galen. The chancellor drove that day to Madison and personally appealed to Joint Finance Committee members for the project, Zimmerman explained. Meanwhile, Zimmerman said he phoned joint finance Co-Chairman John Nygren throughout the night.

Nygren informed Zimmerman the following day that the effort had paid off.

"It's a dog fight," he said. "We were fighting for River Falls."

Van Galen said in a statement that Zimmerman's focus on the project was instrumental "and we greatly appreciate his work helping raise awareness of the value of the project to our campus, region and state with his JFC colleagues."

If approved by the full Legislature and Evers, the funds would represent a launching pad for full funding of the $111 million SciTech project. Zimmerman said design plans would put a finer point on the project's cost "so that we can properly price this thing out."

"We'll have a concrete plan" to request the construction funds in the following biennium, Zimmerman said.

The budget committee also approved funding for the proposed Dairy Innovation Hub, in which UWRF would join two other campuses to develop plans to boost the state's struggling dairy industry. The committee's approval for $8 million toward the project is contingent on UW-System officials providing plans in the coming weeks for implementation.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is a regional/enterprise reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage includes St. Croix County government, higher education and state politics in Wisconsin. 

(651) 301-7867