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Eau Claire’s downtown rebirth gains steam

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The old black-and-white photos show Eau Claire’s downtown with electric streetcars, crowded sidewalks, and bumper-to-bumper traffic. In the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, going downtown on a Friday or Saturday evening meant matching shoes and purses, white gloves, and children awestruck by the selection at Woolworth and JC Penney.

Recently, downtown Eau Claire ranged from pockets of prosperity to abandoned waterfront and low-rent stretches. Nowadays, cranes dominate the skyline as the entire downtown epitomizes the eponymous Phoenix of its riverside park, rising high again.

The catalysts

Bob McCoy, CEO/president of the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce, has lived in Eau Claire for 21 years and witnessed the downtown’s rebooting from a ringside seat.

When he came to Eau Claire, the exodus had already begun. Businesses started to relocate when London Square mall came on the scene. “Then when the Oakwood mall was built, most of the major retailers moved out of downtown. There was a concerted effort in the mid-1990s to put a convention center downtown, but that failed.”

McCoy says the two catalysts in rejuvenation were Royal Credit Union building its corporate headquarters downtown and the city developing the adjacent Phoenix Park.

Mike Schatz, the city’s economic development director who also serves as executive director for the Eau Claire Redevelopment Authority (a seven-person board appointed by the City Council) and executive director for Downtown Eau Claire Incorporated (a private nonprofit with 21 board members), also credits RCU for kickstarting the rebirth.

“Knowing RCU was going to build a $10 million building gave us the confidence to build Phoenix Park,” Schatz said. “Charlie Grossklaus was a real visionary. He was the CEO at RCU at the time and he’s retired now, but he saw what the site on the river could be like. He took the risk to build there when everyone else saw it as a low-rent district.”

Other building and revitalization followed.

“Just after that, the Chamber built their new building,” McCoy said. “Following that, there was a concerted effort to revitalize downtown, and North Barstow is a result of what you see today. Now the forces are working on the south Barstow area and trying to develop that as well.”

The sprucing continues.

“The Confluence Project, the Lismore Hotel, the refurbishing of the Green Tree Hotel and additional housing projects continue the major transformation of downtown into the future. The city is also working on a new transit center which will enhance the downtown,” McCoy said.

Beyond Barstow

However, the action isn’t confined to Barstow.

“In 1992, Uniroyal Tire closed,” McCoy said. “Thanks to Jack Kaiser and Bill and Patti Cigan, they purchased the building and it is now a very successful large incubator known as Banbury Place. So, that contributed.”

The Cigans are also developing a bar, restaurant, and properties that will overlook the Eau Claire River at the old Huebsch laundry. Other developers will build new housing in other downtown areas.

“I believe in the next 20 years, the downtown will develop immensely with additional housing, not only apartments, but condos. Many of the other businesses will begin to be refurbished,” McCoy said. That includes the old YMCA facility that will be replaced or renovated. Add it all up and he comes to one conclusion: “The downtown will be a vibrant area in the heart of the city.”

A different time

Schatz has been in Eau Claire even longer than McCoy. He came to the city 35 years ago and has served it for 30. His wife, an Eau Claire native, remembers it bustling on weekend evenings.

“I got here just after the major department stores were moving out: Penney’s, Sears and Woolworth,” Schatz said. “My wife talks about going downtown on a Friday night to shop. The kids would come along and get treated to candy and soda. People would go to shows and out to eat. Those were the old downtowns that many people once enjoyed.”

And he saw the forces that drained the downtown.

“The malls, the advent of the new major transportation routes, easier access with better roads and streets that let people move away from city centers, demand for services that followed the people, and parking issues moved commerce away from the city center.”

Millennials to the rescue

However, Schatz now sees new forces at play, returning activity to downtown Eau Claire.

“National market trends show people moving back to the urban cores,” he said. “Millennials are very social and want to interact and collaborate. They want to walk more, bike more, and be where the action is. They’re less into driving.”

Young people aren’t just moving downtown. They’re rejuvenating it, too.

“Now you have young people like Zach Halmstad of JAMF Software, who located downtown and grew his company to 200 employees,” Schatz said. “He just built a $10 million office building right next to RCU. He also bought the old Ramada Hotel and is redeveloping that into the Lismore Hotel.”

Another moving and shaking millennial is Nick Meyer, the editor, owner, and publisher of Volume One magazine, who put a high shine on his headquarters and store. The building dates back to the early 1880s, and was a candy factory for several decades before being used for various purposes through the middle 20th century. He said in 1983 it was remodeled into an architecture firm, SDS Architects.

“We bought the building from them in 2007 and they continued to rent from us for a few years,” Meyer said. “We then worked with them in 2011-2012 to significantly remodel it again, bringing back much of the 1880s history by exposing more brick walls, rehabbing the wood floors, opening up the ceilings to the original wood and metal structure, and letting in much more natural light. We used the city’s facade loan program to add awnings to the building as it originally had as well.”

Meyer sees the excitement rising within his peer group.

“There is a palpable energy right now. People are very excited for what’s happening and what’s yet to come. It feels like a lot of hard work paying off,” he said. “From my downtown office, I can see four large-scale construction projects happening right now — that’s never happened before. A lot of my peers are seeing these things happening and trying to figure out what they can do to be a part of it, or how they can arrange their lives to stay in this community and be a part of this transformation.”

That excitement has young folks knocking on Volume One’s door.

“Also, at Volume One we have many young college and post-college people constantly applying for jobs here and in the Local Store explicitly saying they’re excited by what’s happening in Eau Claire and that they’re wanting to stay in this community and be a part of it. That’s a big deal and not something this community has seen enough of in recent years. We need to keep that going.”

Not just the young folks

However, it’s not just the young folks who are returning to downtowns. Schatz said it’s also “retiring baby boomers who are tired of mowing their five acres of lawn and shoveling snow and want to be in a diverse environment close to the arts with restaurants and river and park views.”

And folks of all ages are driving the transformation. He praised a strong redevelopment authority with a board that’s done wonderful things. He cited the most blighted part of downtown, the North Barstow area, and turning it into the nicest area of downtown.

The business owners are playing a key part in the redevelopment. Tax money from the business improvement districts is being used to improve areas, with a board of directors elected by the property owners deciding how the money is spent.

“For example, the North Barstow bid put in $110,000 to help on the fourth floor of the new parking garage. Others put in flowers, watering systems for shrubs, brick pavers, fancier light poles and trash receptacles, things that they think are needed in their area,” Schatz said. “Downtown EC, Inc. gives council recommendation on things like parking, cleanliness, and putting on special events to bring people downtown to put them in front of businesses, suggesting the kind of amenities you need to attract talented people to our downtown.”

Other partnerships

There are other powerful partnerships at play.

UW-Eau Claire has partnered with private developers to expand into the confluence area of downtown, Schatz pointed out. The Haymarket Landing building will offer student housing atop an initial floor of commercial enterprises and is scheduled to open in the summer of 2016. The university is also partnering with other arts organizations for a new performing arts center.

Meyer sees the Confluence Project as an indicator that both citizens and local organizations are pushing in the same direction.

“Obviously the Confluence Project, all three parts — arts center, plaza, mixed-use building — and everything surrounding that effort are evidence of a new way of thinking in Eau Claire, which is very exciting,” he said.

“So the project itself is exciting, sure, but for me the more important takeaway is that it’s evidence that everything and everybody is now pointed in the right direction. The support for the project and the future of downtown Eau Claire was amazing to see, most clearly marked by the hugely positive response to the complicated referendum vote in April 2014. It was a shifting of the tide.”

Schatz believes that the Eau Claire City Council has helped shift that tide.

“Having a strong city council with public policies that favor downtown development is key if you want to attract and keep people,” he said. “We have a city council that has supported downtown redevelopment. Now you see thousands of people down there every day, biking and walking. It’s used for concerts, races, classes, festivals and the farmer’s market.”

However, there is still room to grow.

“While downtown Eau Claire will continue to be a hub for dining and arts/entertainment, I’d like to see a stronger retail and tourism component take hold as well. That’s where a lot of my effort will be going,” Meyer said. “If you come downtown at the right time, during an event or on the weekend, it seems like an amazing place. But on those random Tuesday afternoons, we need the place to look, feel, and be more active — and that takes developing a stronger retail/commerce center.”

A flock of phoenixes

Whatever the gaps, Eau Claire’s downtown is steadily developing a new identity.

“A new state of mind on downtown has arrived and you’re starting to see the cresting of that wave,” Meyer said. “With two rivers, the amazing trail system and a number of amazing bridges, there’s a great outdoorsy palette to work from that many urban areas don’t have the advantage of.”

Want to see the progress? Look up.

“There are cranes everywhere this year and many more projects in the pipeline,” Schatz said. “The momentum is there and is going to continue. All those years of hard work and now it’s just rolling.”

There’s a flock of phoenixes rising.

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