Check in to the Oxbow

state grant aids revival of ex-Green Tree Inn into boutique hotel & restaurant

Tom Giffey

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Renderings of the Oxbow Hotel. See a bigger version.

A half-million-dollar state grant will fill a gap in the funding needed to transform a shuttered downtown establishment into a unique hotel that will embody both Eau Claire’s natural beauty and its rising artistic urbanism. The new owners of the Oxbow Hotel – formerly known as the Green Tree Inn & Suites – announced Nov. 10 that a thorough and lengthy application process, in partnership with the City of Eau Claire, has been successful in securing a $500,000 grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. The grant, coupled with a quarter-million-dollar loan from the city – as well as nearly $3.3 million in private investment and commercial financing – will ensure that the 30-room hotel will open next summer.

The Oxbow will offer attractions for visitors and local residents alike, including boutique overnight accommodations in the heart of downtown; a new restaurant/bar/music venue; a gallery and artist-in-residence program; and even canoe, kayak, tube, and bike rentals.

“In seeking to create a truly authentic Eau Claire stay, we’re doing our best to evoke elements of our community that are important to many people here: the outdoors, music, the arts,” explains Nick Meyer, editor/publisher of Volume One and a member of the hotel’s ownership group, when describing the Oxbow’s atmosphere.

That Chippewa Valley vibe is embodied in the very name of the hotel, which is evocative of several parts of the region’s identity: Literally speaking, oxbows were used to yoke the oxen that labored alongside the farmers and lumberjacks who settled the Chippewa Valley; figuratively, “oxbow” is a term used to describe a U-shaped river bend that becomes a lake (Eau Claire’s Half Moon Lake is one).

COZY LOCAL COMFORT. The Oxbow Hotel’s intimate lobby area references some of the work local craftspeople will be doing to bring a unique vibe to the property. Some of those elements include lighting design by Eaux Claires Festival creative director Michael Brown, and furniture by Tim Brudnicki of Eau Claire Woodworks.
COZY LOCAL COMFORT. The Oxbow Hotel’s lobby area references some of the work local craftspeople will be doing to bring a unique vibe to the property. Some of those elements include lighting design by Eaux Claires Festival creative director Michael Brown, and furniture by Tim Brudnicki of Eau Claire Woodworks.

The hotel, 516 Galloway St., directly across the street from Volume One and The Local Store, has been vacant for more than a year. Its interior has already been gutted and work has begun on the roof, but now that the financial details are solidified, renovation can be undertaken in earnest with a goal to open before next year’s Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival, slated for Aug. 12-13.

The hotel’s 30 rooms are divided between two buildings: a 1940s-era three-story structure, which will feature unique, two-room suites; and a 1960s motel-style building, both outfitted with the feel of an authentic yet modern northern lodge. That Wisconsin-focused aesthetic is being overseen by designer Jackie Millea of Shelter Architecture of Minneapolis, along with Hal Snow of Eau Claire’s SDS Architects, and built by a contractor team headed up by Rhom Construction of Eau Claire. In keeping the music and arts vibe, each room will come complete with a record player (the lobby will have vinyl discs available to check out and bring back to the rooms), and the walls will feature the work of local visual artists.

In addition to Meyer, the hotel’s primary owners are Justin Vernon, a Grammy-winning musician and Eau Claire native; Ben Richgruber, executive director of the Eau Claire Regional Arts Council; and Zach Halmstad, co-founder of JAMF Software. But this entrepreneurial quartet is just part of the team that will transform The Oxbow into a downtown destination. In addition to the more than a dozen community members who are silent investors, several other notables are helping craft the hotel.

The hotel’s owners intend the venue to be a hub for both local food and local music – specifically jazz music. “We want to make a place in Eau Claire where our rich tradition of jazz can meet with other types of improvised performances and songwriting. Where we put the emphasis on cultivating a calendar of quality music appreciation,” says Vernon, whose musical projects include Bon Iver, Volcano Choir, and more. “Imagine on a Tuesday seeing some of the region’s best jazz players together on stage. Or on a Wednesday, a group of us spinning obscure and amazing country 78 records from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Thursday, maybe a squad of solo songwriters. It’s all in the mix.”

The Oxbow’s artistic side will extend beyond décor, music, and cuisine: The hotel will also feature an artist-in-residence program. Artists from anywhere can apply, and those selected for the short-term gig will be provided with a fishbowl-style workspace between the hotel lobby and an adjacent gallery space on the first floor. The program will give artists from elsewhere a chance to interact with and perhaps help pollinate the Chippewa Valley’s own arts community, Meyer explained.

The half-million-dollar grant that will help the project move forward comes from the WEDC’s Community Investment Grant Program, which emphasizes shovel-ready projects in Wisconsin’s downtowns. Technically speaking, the money will go to the City of Eau Claire, which will pass it on to the hotel, then add another $250,000 in the form of an interest-free loan to be fully repaid after 13 years.

The Oxbow is one of two downtown hotels that are undergoing renovations. The Lismore, formerly known as the Ramada Inn, is expected to open in early 2016. The two facilities share a part owner (Halmstad), and will also have a symbiotic relationship, sharing some facilities and staff for things like laundry, maintenance, and more.

The restaurant/bar’s stage and lighting design, along with a handful of signature lighting elements in the bar and lobby, will be designed by Michael Brown, creative director of the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival, and his partner Maria Meyer. Craftsman Tim Brudnicki of Eau Claire Woodworks will be using reclaimed local timber to lend that modern lodge feel to the interior through key elements including doors, tables, and other signature pieces. 

But perhaps the biggest news, especially for foodie locals in the know, is that the dining experience will be crafted and executed by chef Nathan Berg, former owner of the critically acclaimed Native Bay Restaurant on Lake Wissota, who most recently has been popping up to wow diners at Forage in Banbury Place. “When the creative team behind the hotel first approached me, it didn’t take long to realize that their vision for the project was very much in-line with my approach to the culinary arts,” Berg said. 

The restaurant/bar will have an upscale yet casual pub atmosphere, and dishes will emphasize regional flavors using local elements like cranberries, maple syrup, wild rice, and more. “When we eat local foods, and especially when we eat foods that are native to the Upper Midwest, we help to create an identity that’s more closely tied to this region,” Berg added. “By eating the foods of these northwoods, a greater part of us becomes the northwoods.”

In addition to a unique dining experience, the hotel’s owners aim to create a one-of-a-kind vibe for those who imbibe: The bar will take focus as a true craft cocktail bar, with mixologist Megan Arts consulting on the specialty creations. The space will seat roughly 70 and – weather permitting – another 70-plus people will be able to sit in an outdoor courtyard featuring two fire pits and a compact patch of grass perfectly suited for kubb, the Nordic lawn game.

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