Downtowns were nearly done in by the American Dream.

The dream emerged when Americans, flush with cash from the booming post-World War II economy and with cars that could take them anywhere, fled into the suburbs to buy houses, stake out their own piece of land and raise a family. So many of us grew up there in those newly-created spaces, and the next generation followed suit.

Metropolitan cities saw their populations slide for several decades, but the housing boom didn’t deliver the knockout punch. That was left to the shopping mall.

When Southdale shopping center opened in Edina, Minn., in 1956, the first fully-enclosed, climate-controlled mall in the nation sparked scores of imitations. The convenience of shopping nearer to where most people lived was too much for many downtowns to beat.

We saw it play out here in Eau Claire when London Square Mall and then Oakwood Mall drove consumers to the city’s south side. Downtown areas in Chippewa Falls and Menomonie struggled, too.

But the winds of change are breathing life back into downtowns, and that is abundantly clear in what is happening in the Chippewa Valley’s three largest cities.

Phoenix Park has been ground zero in drawing people back downtown in Eau Claire, and although it took awhile for development to follow RCU’s lead, it can be seen everywhere now. Among the most visible examples are JAMF Software building its headquarters near RCU’s, a major downtown hotel and conference center being brought back to life, and the Confluence Project, which has mobilized so many people.

With so much construction, Eau Claire has a sudden need for a multi-level parking garage. Who would have dreamed that a decade ago?

Eau Claire is not alone. Chippewa Falls’ downtown has gone from quiet and charming to bustling with activity — it’s still charming, by the way — full of an interesting mix of stores that make it the envy of even larger downtowns. And the changes are only beginning, with its riverfront development promising to do for Chippewa what Phoenix Park has done for Eau Claire.

Downtown Menomonie has also been seeing big changes, both on the business front and in housing.

Yes, housing. The exodus to the suburbs has been reversed, led by a new generation that doesn’t want to be holed up in oversized houses and walled off from their neighbors and their neighborhoods. They are seeking to be more connected, and more are choosing to live and work in areas that are lively and vibrant. Which once again describes downtown.

Downtowns are getting a second act — thanks to the hard work and foresight of so many people and organizations — and they are making the most of it. It appears as if a new American Dream is emerging.

We hope you enjoy our latest issue of the Chippewa Valley Business Report.

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