the shifting roster of Eau Claire's downtown shops
With spiffy plans on the horizon that promise to beef up downtown visibility and activity, it may seem incongruous that downtown commercial activity has taken some hits.
Within the past two months, two local businesses have found new homes elsewhere (Crossroad Books and Siker’s Furniture). While this doesn’t spell a loss for Eau Claire as a whole, the downtown area will surely feel their vacancies. Compound this with another business that has closed and plans to re-open “soon” (Obsession Chocolates) two more that have closed definitively (Turk’s Head Coffee House and Brickhouse Music, still open at its River Falls location), and one that plans on closing in late September (Wildwood Gifts & Boutique).
“I’d like to stick around for the next phase, which I have a feeling is going to be lovely. ... I really hope it develops into stores downtown; not just offices and attorneys.” – Nancy Knocke of Wildwood Gifts & Boutique
The business owners I’ve spoken with recently have varying reasons for their decisions to close this chapter. Most are tangible and unarguably practical. For instance, Mark Patterson of Crossroad Books spoke of the overwhelming heating and cooling costs of their former location at 301 S. Barstow Street. Co-owner Sharon Ager cites the success of e-books, an unprecedented phenomenon that causes setbacks for physical bookstores just about anywhere. In fact, the couple’s search for a different location has been underway for the past three years. Now open in a smaller space in Hamilton Square (2803 E. Hamilton Ave.), Patterson says they’ll reserve some stock in a heated storage shed at home in order to better serve online customers.
But throughout their venture on Barstow St., they’ve gained opinions on how potential customers perceive downtown Eau Claire, and how that affects business.
“People have this perception that parking downtown is difficult,” he says. “It’s not! I’ve been down there for nine years and I can count on less than one hand the times that I had to park more than a block away.”
He says Barstow Street’s slated reconstruction was not a major factor, but “accelerated the process” of finding new property.
Brickhouse Music owners Tom Bentz and Jen Burleigh-Bentz mentioned that the city of Eau Claire should be more forthcoming with specific information about upcoming improvement phases.
“They coddled us beforehand,” says Jen Burleigh-Bentz of Graham Street’s reconstruction discussion period. “and afterward, there was nothing. They should put up signs to indicate that the businesses are still open where there’s construction… it was like the desert with all the dust.”
Mike Schatz, Economic Development Director for the City of Eau Claire, says project timelines have been publicized through Downtown Eau Claire, Inc.’s newsletter and that monthly public information sessions are being held once a month at The Firehouse. To improve communication between business owners and customers during the Barstow St makeover, he says the public works department will put up “tons of signage” and may offer free access to parking lots downtown, much like the Haymarket Lot was available for use throughout Graham St.’s renovation.
Schatz also says certain businesses may be able to use their alley entrances as their main entrance, a change he says they’ll bolster by “helping direct customers and sprucing up the alleys.” Off-site signage, however, would be the sole responsibility of the business owner.
“So the city and DECI can do their part, but businesses have to use social media and other means to do their part, too,” he says.
Nancy Knocke, whose husband Ken owns Wildwood Gifts & Boutique, thinks new business ventures reap too many of the available resources.
“An issue that I’d like to address is the Jump-Start program. I think it’s wonderful that [DECI] does that, but I would like to see some existing businesses get a leg up rather than one large sum going to only new businesses,” she says, referring to the annual entrepreneurial competition sponsored by DECI which awards $5,000 in start-up capital to the best proposal.
Though these owners express disappointment at not being able to remain downtown, they will continue to support the glimmer of change which is burning.
“I’d like to stick around for the next phase, which I have a feeling is going to be lovely,” says Knocke. “Downtown doesn’t have to be so cut and dried ... I really hope it develops into stores downtown; not just offices and attorneys.”
For Mark, Sharon, Tom, and Jen, praise of downtown redevelopment is tempered with caution, of course. All told, their picture of prosperity includes retail establishments that have storefronts on the street. If it can’t be their store, they hope someone else can thrive there after the dust settles.