Beginning in September, the iconic 526-foot Phoenix Park footbridge in downtown Eau Claire will be ablaze with thousands of LED lights capable of displaying millions of colors and “dancing” in time to music on special occasions. Work began over the summer to install 196 light fixtures on the bridge in an effort spearheaded by the Eau Claire Rotary Club in cooperation with Downtown Eau Claire Inc. and UW-Eau Claire.
“This has been two years in the making. It’s exciting to see it finally coming together,” said Jerry Kuehl, who has coordinated the project with fellow Rotarian Pat Thoney. So far, $220,000 has been raised in cash and in-kind contributions, Kuehl said. Depending on final construction costs, another $30,000 to $50,000 will be needed.
The project has been dubbed River Lights to emphasize the fact that it isn’t just about illuminating the former railroad bridge, which was built in 1903. In fact, those involved in the project are hopeful that similar lighting can be included in the Confluence Arts Center, which is under construction just downstream, as well as in a proposed pedestrian bridge that would connect Phoenix Park with the yet-to-be-built Haymarket Plaza on the other side of the Eau Claire River.
Once it’s fully operational, the bridge will be more than just a span of steel lit up with pretty lights. “It will actually be putting on a show,” Thoney said. Under the direction of Jason Jon Anderson, UWEC’s assistant director for conference and event services, university students will learn how to program and operate the lights as part of their coursework. In fact, the students will eventually be able to look out the window of the Confluence Arts Center at their handiwork as it lights up the night.
Anderson oversees and mentors UWEC students who do audiovisual work for performances on and off campus. “Many of the students involved will be part of the theatre arts department, and this bridge will allow them the opportunity to be involved within the community, explore their passion for lighting and work with the first real-world light lab for architectural lighting in the Midwest,” Anderson said in an interview last year.
Students from another local institution have also played a key role in the project. Students from the Chippewa Valley Technical College welding program have donated their time to fabricate the steel brackets that have been used to attach the lights to the bridge. “This has actually been a true industrial project they’ve been able to work on,” Thoney explained. The Rotary Club purchased the Corten steel used in the project, but students created blueprints using a CAD program and used a plasma cutter to cut the brackets in a CVTC lab. The students donated approximately 120 hours to the effort, saving the project an estimated $21,000.
Once installation is finished, control of the lights will be handed over to Downtown Eau Claire Inc. Kyran Hamill, DECI’s communications and promotions coordinator, said the bridge will be lit with ambient colors every night. At other times, it will be lit in single or multiple colors to recognize a cause – for example, pink for breast cancer awareness or blue and gold for UWEC Homecoming. At other times sponsors will be able to pay for special colors or lighting performances on the bridge, Hamill said. Such performances and lighting sponsorships will have to meet city approval.
“Hopefully, it’s something that will become a showcase for the community,” Hamill said of the bridge.
To learn more about the River Lights project to illuminate the Phoenix Park bridge and to find out how you can make a donation, visit lightitupec.com.