Hip Eau Claire, the new Austin?

Linda John’s timing wasn’t the best. Shortly after she arrived in Eau Claire 25 years ago, the city went into a funk after the Uniroyal Tire plant on the edge of downtown closed, leaving more than 1,300 workers without jobs and shaking the economic foundations of the city.

Uniroyal, which had been in the city for more than 100 years, no longer needed a 1.9-million-square-foot factory that could make up to 30,000 tires a day.

“There was a lot of gloom and doom at that point,” recalled John, now executive director of Visit Eau Claire, which promotes tourism in the region. “A lot of stores in the city center were closing, which was made worse because a mall had opened on the edge of town.”

Property values dropped. Though some workers retired or returned to school to get new skills, others moved, leaving Eau Claire behind.

“There was a bit of panic from city leaders,” she said. “At first, people argued about what to do and the turnaround process was slow. It affected a lot of personal lives. People knew it was coming, but when the reality hit, the overall mood was depressed. They were in shock.

“I moved here from the Twin Cities when my former husband was transferred, but I didn’t know what was going on. We arrived right in the thick of it.”

But over the past quarter century, Eau Claire, population 68,000, has rebounded and it’s now the second-fastest-growing city in Wisconsin behind Madison. It’s become a regional cultural hub and has developed a national reputation as a hip place to live. Some wags have begun calling it a mini-Portland, Oregon, the Brooklyn of the Midwest or a new Austin, Texas — only with much lower housing prices.

Millennials are moving here and young people who grew up in Eau Claire, dubbed boomerangers, are returning. The city has gained international exposure because of the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival, a two-day event founded by Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter Justin Vernon of the band Bon Iver. He grew up in the city and studied at the UW-Eau Claire campus, which has 11,000 students. He continues to live in Eau Claire when he’s not on the road.

Becca Cooke, who runs the Red’s Mercantile store in downtown Eau Claire, is a boomeranger who returned home after a 10-year hiatus living in the Twin Cities, Denver and Palm Springs, Calif.

“I’d been away since I was 18 and returned at 28 in 2015,” said Cooke, who came back in part to be closer to family, “and not that aunt that no one ever saw.”

“When I got here, I decided I wanted to be part of the creative movement, which is thriving,” added Cooke, whose store hosts events and concerts, as well as small-business workshops. It also gives out grants to women entrepreneurs.

“Eau Claire has changed tremendously in years I was gone. Parts were cool, but other parts were dilapidated. Now you can tell that a lot of folks have put a lot of effort into making it what is today. Friends have started to come home to live, too, now that there’s so much to draw them back.”

John said Eau Claire, a former timber-mill and manufacturing town that sits at the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers, was fortunate that Jack Kaiser and his father, Bill Cigan, almost immediately began negotiations with Uniroyal to buy the closed plant.

“They came forward with a vision to convert that nearly 2 million square feet of space into light industrial, warehousing and service shops,” she said. Kaiser and Cigan named it Banbury Place, which has evolved into apartments, restaurants, retail and an artists collective while also offering conference facilities.

“People thought we were crazy,” said Kaiser. “But we’d fixed up some old buildings prior to that and converted them to new uses. But we never wanted the whole plant, though that was how it worked out. And there were some sleepless nights over the years, but now 95 percent of the usable space is being used.”

The city, which is 90 miles from the Minneapolis and St. Paul, has also become a regional health care center, with two hospitals open and a third being built. The home-improvement chain Menard’s is based in Eau Claire and it’s also home to Jamf, a thriving tech company that makes software for Apple and was co-founded by former UW-Eau Claire student Zach Halmstad.

The downtown is thriving, thanks in large part to the Royal Credit Union, which picked a former industrial site at the rivers’ confluence for its new headquarters. The city and the credit union put in the Phoenix Park nearby, which has a fishing pier and trails. It’s also home to a farmers market, a concert series and other activities.  

She said the “baby steps” were tentative at first, but that changed with the Royal Credit Union headquarters and new park, which were followed by $120 million in downtown investments, including two boutique hotels, craft breweries and restaurants.  

“Things turned around beginning with credit union headquarters and made people realize we were on to something. After that, the ‘Clear Vision’ process was created with a variety of stakeholders involved, including members of the business, education, health care and other groups.”

One result is the 135,000-square-foot Pablo Center at the Confluence, which is scheduled to open in September with two theaters, multiple rehearsal rooms, dance studios, labs for sound, lighting, set and exhibit design, multimedia production, a scene shop, maker space, administrative offices for management, UW-Eau Claire faculty and Visit Eau Claire staff. In addition, the city is developing a public plaza near the center, and there will be a lighted bridge connecting the plaza to Phoenix Park across the river.

John said tourism, fueled by the city’s numerous festivals, is also growing. In 2017, there was $257 million in direct spending by visitors in Eau Claire and $400 million in direct and indirect spending in the county. Those figures were up 12 percent over 2016 — one of the largest increases in the state.

“The big draw is the ‘cool’ factor,” she said with a chuckle. “The Eaux Claires Festival, now in its fourth year, alone draws people from 27 countries. Justin Vernon would never want to take credit for that, but five years ago, after he won his awards, we really started getting noticed on a national and international scale.

“He was on a worldwide tour and people wanted to know more about the town he was from and his story. We had so many people coming that we had to had to put people up at UW-Eau Claire and some got to stay in the dorm where he once lived. He’s been very loyal to Eau Claire and it’s been a neat collection.”

By Brian E. Clark