rising cities Eau Claire and Buffalo, N.Y., follow similar paths
While creating a “sweet” American Dream story about my Albanian immigrant family’s candy business – which grew to become the largest in western New York – I had an “aha!” moment. Forty years had passed since I moved into my house in Eau Claire, and numerous changes had occurred in the area. For example, it was now commercial and referred to as the downtown corridor. Previously, I was attracted to the location because it reminded me of living in a larger city. This was what I had been used to and enjoyed before moving to the Midwest.
Both cities have seen the importance of defining an environment that attracts and retains younger people.
When I first moved to Eau Claire, I liked the feel and flavor of activity that existed in my new neighborhood, a self-contained community that had a butcher at Shopper’s Market and the outstanding Ninth Ward Bakery, which was busy with customers who’d say, “They have the best doughnuts in the city” (not to mention an aroma you could die for). In addition, there were other businesses that had a steady, regular group of patrons. Also, in contrast to my hometown of Buffalo, N.Y. – where we often had to cross the Peace Bridge to swim in Canada – my children now had quick access to nearby beaches.
Besides knowing my family could afford our house – which I loved within 10 minutes – I could walk and bike places. This was years before the convenient, greatly used bike trails were built. Plus, deep down I was certain that – somewhere down the pike – the larger downtown scene would expand in a positive direction. However, little did I dream that the day would come that I’d tell out of town relatives and friends – “This place is getting like the Gold Rush.” My attitude of seeing economic possibilities coupled with a curiosity for opportunity emerged from my childhood experiences of being raised in a business environment that included a tightly knit immigrant background. It was common to discuss, observe, and envision the flow of trade possibilities, among other things, that fostered our family’s expanding wholesale business in the Buffalo area.
This attitude never left me. In fact, it’s why during the past several years, I’ve been thrilled to see more than one thread connecting the cities where I’ve developed roots. Furthermore, my “aha” moment happened when I realized both Eau Claire’s rising and Buffalo’s rising contained distinct similarities and obvious differences.
As I think about the revitalization of Eau Claire’s downtown, the support of the Confluence Project, and the encouragement of an entertainment district, I’m reminded of Buffalo in the Roaring Twenties. Also, today there’s been a substantial reemergence with new businesses developing and people moving to the city, both new residents and returning ones. For a variety of reasons, they prefer what downtown offers.
Across the street from my family’s original store – which was built in 1922 in what became the heart of Buffalo’s Theater District – was the grand Shea’s Buffalo. Today, the theater – now known as Shea’s Performing Arts Center – attracts visitors from outside the city, much like it’s hoped the Confluence will do in Eau Claire.
Last fall, I revisited the family story at 452 Pearl St. in Buffalo. It was the first address I ever learned, and it has been declared historic. While there, I met fourth-wave immigrants who’ve turned it into an Indian restaurant hoping to achieve their American Dream, just as my family did. The hotel down the street my dad bought to house actors had been converted to the Cabaret Restaurant, which is lined inside with posters of Broadway productions. Coincidentally, neither Buffalo nor Eau Claire has a downtown supermarket.
At another level of expansion in Eau Claire, one can consider the significant growth of Mayo Clinic Health System (the successor to Luther Hospital, where I had walked to work). By comparison, in Buffalo, where many had lost hope the economy would come back after the decline of the Rust Belt, the State University of New York at Buffalo invested in a large medical college campus in the downtown area. Without question it’s been a huge boost; keep in mind a metro rail system was implemented to reduce traffic.
In addition to these similarities, both cities have seen the importance of defining an environment that attracts and retains younger people. Community forums in Eau Claire, such as “How the Chippewa Valley Got Back Its Swagger: Competing in the Age of Talent,” have been refreshing to attend. Personally, I’ve enjoyed being a committee member and working with both local and out of town people on the Eau Claire Healthy Communities initiative.
However, one thing about Buffalo that I’d suggest that Eau Claire would emulate is a catchy official motto containing the city’s name. I once wrote a story that included “You’re Among Friends in Wisconsin,” which was a good statewide slogan. Eau Claire has been called “City of Bridges” and a “City That Works” and (more recently) “Music Capital of the North,” but the city’s name isn’t there.
By contrast, for the past few years Buffalo has been using “Buffalo Billion,” the name of a billion-dollar state investment that’s brought jobs back to the vicinity. Among other things, the Buffalo Billion helped fund SolarCity, which is intended to be the largest solar plant in the nation. In the Chippewa Valley, we’re also becoming known for promoting solar energy as evidenced in a recent Leader-Telegram op-ed, which noted our region is “the ‘epicenter’ of the proliferation of large, utility-operated solar gardens in the state.”
Since we live in an area filled with creative talent, perhaps a contest could be conducted to produce a motto for Eau Claire? We already have contests for start-up companies. This is also true in Buffalo, where 43North is probably the largest contest of its kind in the country. As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said earlier this year, “After two years, the 43North competition has attracted some of the world’s brightest and most innovative entrepreneurs to Buffalo.”
Finally, my father used to encourage my brother George and me to write winning jingles for newspaper contests. My brother blew it off and became a doctor. However, since Dad also inspired me to “Be free and do whatever you want,” I became a writer. Maybe this piece will help others to achieve their own American Dream?