But what de Cleyre and her husband found when they arrived from Portland was more than a two-day celebration of music on the Chippewa River. They found a thriving scene of local artists, designers and writers. They saw a downtown with new apartments, bike trails, hotels and plans for a performing arts center at the confluence of two rivers. They discovered home prices that were a third of the price of Portland’s.
When this year’s Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival kicked off in mid-June, de Cleyre didn’t have to travel. She and her husband are some of Eau Claire’s newest residents, and they’re both appreciating and stoking the city’s cultural renaissance.
“People kept saying: You should meet this person or that person. It was the opposite of Portland, where people already had a set community and were really guarded,” said de Cleyre, who is 29 and working on plans to open a bookstore downtown.
Eau Claire has received national attention lately thanks to Vernon’s 3-year-old festival, beloved by music geeks for its eclectic lineup and whimsy. But the bigger story is how deftly this former factory town has pivoted to embrace the arts, technology and innovation — boosting tourism and attracting new, young transplants in the process.
“The interest is crazy right now,” said Nick Meyer, the 38-year-old head of Volume One, a magazine and website he started in 2002 to cover arts and culture, and to champion Eau Claire.
The key to all the development has been a decade of consistent collaboration between players at Eau Claire’s city, county, university, business, tourism and philanthropic levels. Young entrepreneurs are behind some of the newest projects, and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire is wooing back young alums from the Twin Cities, just over an hour away.
Some critics question the pace of construction and the sustainability of the projects, and also whether a new $45 million performing arts center is a wise use of public funds.
But Eau Claire has seen a 3% bump in population since 2010, the second-biggest increase among Wisconsin’s 10 largest cities, trailing only Madison. Census estimatesshow that between 2015 and 2016, the city attracted more than 530 new residents. By comparison, Oshkosh — which is nearly identical in size to Eau Claire — lost 67 people between those same years.
Empty factories, blighted land
Eau Claire was a lumber town in the late 1800s and early 1900s, then shifted to manufacturing. The Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Company was the city’s largest employer until the factory shut down in the early 1990s, eliminating more than 1,300 jobs.
A decade later, city leaders sought to breathe life into Eau Claire’s downtown. They started by cleaning up blighted properties along the riverfront.
“The public sector led the way by turning these properties into something a developer could actually utilize,” said Mike Schatz, the city’s economic development administrator.
The city built Phoenix Park on the river at the apex of downtown and encouraged community members to use it for a farmers market, weddings and yoga. It hosts a variety of outdoor concerts, including the Sounds Like Summer series on Thursday nights, which is put on by Volume One and draws 2,000 to 3,000 people with music, food trucks and craft vendors. The city also invested in other resident-friendly infrastructure: bike trails, sidewalks, an outdoor sound system on the main drag.
Then the private sector stepped forward, Schatz said.
Royal Credit Union placed its headquarters across from Phoenix Park. Next door is Jamf, an Apple management software company. It was founded by Zach Halmstad, a coder and former music major who graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 2004. Jamf has offices worldwide, but Halmstad kept a footprint — and 200 employees — in Eau Claire.
Both buildings helped the city pay for bonds that were issued for the infrastructure improvements, Schatz said.
New apartments sprung up, and today downtown is home to around 3,500 residents. In summer, the Chippewa River that flows through the city and the campus is bustling with inner-tubing and floating enthusiasts, many of whom launch from Phoenix Park.
Not all on board
In 2012, arts advocates, the tourism bureau and UW-Eau Claire officials announced an idea for a more ambitious downtown project: A multi-theater performing arts center that would replace the dilapidated State Theater, offer space to artists and art organizations, and serve as a technical training center for university students. The complex would include a privately-funded student apartment building and an outdoor public plaza.
Situated at the juncture of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers, the Confluence Arts Center would be a total $85 million public-private venture that would require city, county, state and private investment.
Not everyone was on board.
The most well-known critic was Maryjo Cohen, president of National Presto Industries, which makes cooking appliances. She and others voiced concerns about the amount of public funding required, especially since the city had already issued generous tax-financing deals to downtown businesses, which wouldn’t pay off for decades. Historical preservation advocates worried about the loss of downtown buildings.
Public meetings over the Confluence project grew heated and in 2014, the city and the county held referenda questions that would determine the project’s future.
Voters approved the necessary local spending. And while there were bumps along the way, including a lawsuit by Confluence opponents, the Legislature ultimately committed to $15 million.
Today, 400-plus students bustle in and out of the new riverfront apartments known as Haymarket Landing, above a first-floor retail space. The apartments are managed through a multi-year lease with the state on behalf of the university. In the summertime, snowbirds sublet nicer upper-floor apartments from students.
Next door, the beams and struts of the Confluence Arts Center are taking shape.
A push from the university
UW-Eau Claire has been such an integral player in the Confluence project that the groundbreaking was scheduled to coincide with a UW System Board of Regents meeting on campus last fall.
Chancellor James Schmidt and Kimera Way, president of UW-Eau Claire’s private fundraising foundation and executive director of university advancement, were among two dozen VIPs with ceremonial shovels and hardhats that day.
“There was a core group of people who refused to accept defeat as an option,” Way recalled of the journey to groundbreaking. “They viewed this as: We are investing in the future of our community and our region.”
In fact, the university’s foundation was expected to raise $10 million in private donations toward the Confluence Arts Center. When public funding fell short, total community donations rose to $15.5 million.
Many generous gifts came from alums in their 30s and 40s who live in Eau Claire and saw it as a way to help build a vibrant community for their own children, Way said. That’s a departure from the typical donor profile: Alumni over 55 who already have raised families and built wealth.
Millennials are making a difference in their communities because they have a strong sense of place and responsibility, the chancellor said.
“I’ve never in my career run across so many 30-somethings building families and businesses, and already giving back.”
UW-Eau Claire’s 10,900 undergraduates also are more a part of the community than in the past. Rerouted city buses conveniently link the campus and downtown, a mile apart.
Four years ago, when Schmidt became chancellor, “you could shoot a cannon off downtown and not hit anything,” he said. “In the old days, students thought Water Street (at the edge of campus) was downtown. Phoenix Park was known as ‘No Man’s Land.’ ”
“But I think we’ve got our groove back,” the chancellor said. “It’s become cool to be downtown, and college students are now attracted to the community, not just the college. The town-and-gown relationship hasn’t been this good for a long time.”
Last summer, Schmidt rounded up Chippewa Valley employers and community leaders to travel to a St. Paul Saints ball game and tell young alumni there about the jobs, culture and other amenities their college town could offer as they consider where to raise a family.
The university culled its alumni database to find and invite 2,641 alums ages 25 to 35 who were living in the Twin Cities; about 225 Blugolds showed up at the game. Applied Data, XcelEnergy, Sacred Heart St. Joseph’s, Mayo and Marshfield clinics paid for game tickets, picnic fare and gathering space. Marshfield Clinic scored a new doctor, and seeds were planted for other future career moves, said Schmidt.
“I tell alumni you may think you know Eau Claire, but you don’t,” the chancellor said. “If you graduated even five years ago, you won’t recognize the place.”
Some of the developments Eau Claire leaders could highlight to alums included:
- The Lismore Hotel. Halmstad, of Jamf, poured $20 million into renovating an old Ramada Inn downtown to make way for the 112-room hotel.
- The Oxbow Hotel. Meyer, Vernon, Halmstad and Ben Richgruber, a local arts administrator — all under the age of 40 — partnered to create another boutique hotel with a bar and restaurant. Guests can borrow kayaks and vinyl records to play on in-room turntables.
- The Brewing Projekt. A craft brewery started by William Glass, another UW-Eau Claire grad, opened in 2015 and is poised to expand.
- Artisan Forge Studios. Local metalsmith Greg Johnson, also a UW-EC grad, opened the large industrial facility in 2015 to collaborate with other artists.
- Banbury Place. The former Uniroyal plant has been renovated into work space for artists and small businesses.
- An event and recreation complex. A site on 34 acres of riverfront property, part of it an alumni gift to the university, will soon have an event center and be a hub for community wellness, aquatics, recreation and child care. Plans also include an education center, restaurant and student apartments.
Development experts in other Wisconsin cities are taking notes on Eau Claire, even as they acknowledge its unique blessings: a longstanding arts community, ample natural resources, a welcoming political atmosphere, some famous and successful young natives, and a committed university partner.
“The university makes it accessible to try some of these new ideas,” said Elizabeth Brodek, executive director of the Wausau River District.
In fact, UW-Eau Claire’s partnership is a model for what state lawmakers and UW System leaders hope can happen in other college towns.
“UW-Eau Claire and other UW System institutions are important for the educational, cultural and economic impact they have in their communities,” UW System President Ray Cross said.
‘Doing things differently’
Kevin Miller, who was named the first executive director of the Confluence Arts Centerlast week, said Eau Claire’s redevelopment has happened at “breakneck speed.”
“It’s phenomenal to see the transformation,” said Miller, who was most recently leading the Thelma Sadoff Center for the Arts in Fond du Lac.
Not everyone is optimistic. Larry Barlow, a former Eau Claire council member and former state Assembly representative, said he fears the new Confluence could be a money pit. “I hope I’m proven wrong,” he said.
The university has pledged to sustain the new arts center; the theater department will relocate there when the center opens in fall 2018. University opera performances also will move there.
“Classes moving downtown; that’s a big deal,” the chancellor said.
Many Eau Claire transplants and those considering a move say they are attracted to the city’s energy.
Sarah Godlewski grew up in Eau Claire but has spent 15 years building her consulting business in Washington, D.C. She and her husband are preparing to move back.
“It feels like Eau Claire is on this precipice where it’s attracting skilled people willing to take risks,” said Godlewski, 35. “The city council and county board are willing to think outside the box. I think it’s a place where people with ideas and financial resources and academia are all coming together to think about doing things differently.”
That spirit could be felt at the Eaux Claires festival on June 17.
More than 100 university students worked festival production jobs alongside professionals. They gained career experience and honed problem-solving skills, including how to quickly dry a stage and replace specialized microphones soaked by a downpour so Paul Simon could perform.
Before the rain, Schmidt and Way from the university chatted with residents over beers in the sunny VIP area. Way sported an Eaux Claires festival tattoo on her ankle. Halmstad wandered by in shorts and shades.
Soon people headed to a small stage above the river to hear Vernon’s latest collaboration with the National’s Aaron Dessner, a multi-instrumentalist who co-curates the festival with Vernon.
As the crowd tightened and hushed for the set, which included Vernon’s falsetto, Dessner’s guitar, and flute and French horn electronica, the mood felt decidedly inclusive, collaborative and experimental.
Just like the city itself.