Strolling Iowa

former Eau Claire city manager migrated to Iowa City to help create fantastic pedestrian mall

Kinzy Janssen

The highly successful pedestrian mall in Iowa City, helped in part by the former city manager of Eau Claire, Steve Atkins.

    While making the “Rethinking Our Streets” issue, we envisioned a pedestrian mall for downtown Eau Claire, realizing that similar proposals had come up at the city level in the past but never came to fruition. In our vision, we used the one in Iowa City as a basis of comparison for being a similar-sized city in the Midwest.

    It was brought to our attention soon afterward that a man named Steve Atkins had managed the City of Eau Claire before he held a successful 21-year position in Iowa City. Had a frustrated man left Eau Claire for a progressive place where he could actually get things done? No. But with such an intimate relationship to both cities, he would surely have some insight on their capacities and tendencies.

    Steve Atkins held Eau Claire’s reins from 1978 to 1983. During that time, informal pedestrian mall talks were percolating, but the idea remained in its infancy and the council never authorized a major expenditure. When he left, it wasn’t because he was uncomfortable here.

    “I can say, unequivocally, I miss Eau Claire. … The city was good to me, and I think I was good for it,” he says.

    Three years after he was recruited for a management position in suburban Chicago, Atkins became city manager in Iowa City, a job he held until 2007. On his watch, several million dollars nourished a major pedestrian mall renovation project. Atkins says the ped mall, which was built in the late 70, needed a facelift. “There were buildings falling down that needed follow up renovation. We got new planters, redid the walkways … gave rise to downtown sculptures and high rise buildings,” he says. His vision blossomed into the pedestrian mall that is beloved to its residents today. So I asked him what we were desperate to know. Why not here?
“It’s a little harder sell (in Eau Claire). … People in Eau Claire have got to be convinced if you’re pursuing some major project. They need to have their ducks in a row,” he says. Granted, this is retrospection. Atkins hasn’t managed the city since the 80s. But Mike Huggins, current city manager here, has some fresh input.

    “In some ways, we’re cautious and conservative,” he says of Eau Claire’s general populace. “We try to avoid conflict. … The community suffers from the ‘We can’t do that here’ attitude. We say, ‘La Crosse has a cool downtown, Madison is smart, but we’re just Eau Claire.’ ”

    Both managers acknowledged that the geography of the two cities differs, in that the University of Iowa is virtually superimposed on the downtown landscape, while UWEC’s student hub is somewhat removed from downtown. Our student population is also much smaller – 11,000 compared to 29,000.

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