Eau Claire Is Making National Headlines. Here's What That Means and Why You Should Care.

With significant media attention in recent months from throughout the Midwest and beyond, is this “new” Eau Claire the real deal, or is it all an unsustainable flash in the pan?

Nick Meyer
Volume One Editor / Publisher

Eau Claire Is Making National Headlines. Here's What That Means and Why You Should Care.

With significant media attention in recent months from throughout the Midwest and beyond, is this “new” Eau Claire the real deal, or is it all an unsustainable flash in the pan?

Nick Meyer
Volume One Editor / Publisher

Even if you’ve only barely paid attention this summer, it’s likely you still couldn’t avoid it. It’s been in regional and national magazines and websites, on TV, on the radio, on social media, and on the lips of many locals and visitors alike.

In the span of just a few months, the Eau Claire community has received an increasingly generous pile of positive outside media attention at a level we’ve never seen before. Whether the stories come out of outlets based in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New York City, Los Angeles, or one of countless points between, they all seem to agree: Eau Claire is onto something.

It’s as if, to everyone’s surprise, Wisconsin’s (and the Midwest’s?) best-kept secret has been discovered and everyone is rushing to spread the news. They suggest people visit and check it out. They tell them to consider moving here and opening a business. They basically encourage readers to get in while the gettin’ is good. With each story these outlets often praise our longtime cultural standbys – things like our music & arts scenes, outdoor beauty, nice people, manageable size, and low living/visiting costs. But the hook of their coverage lies mostly in our new wave of cultural momentum – things like our growing festival scene, coming arts center, interesting new hotels, new restaurants, new breweries, new boutique retailers, new trails, and more. For better or worse, words like “millennials,” “artsy,” “hipster,” “boom,” and “destination” get tossed around like the cultural currency they’ve become.

Frankly, as a local, it’s been a bit jarring. Over the last several years Eau Claire may have received a nice bump like this once or twice a year landing on a list for “16 Best Places to Live in the US” or the “Best Small Places for Business and Careers.” But by our count, within the last year there have been more than two dozen major articles written specifically about Eau Claire, an apparent new “it” city, with most of those out in the last few months alone (see the sidebar for a partial list). Also over the last year, several major state-wide associations – in tourism, economic development, higher education, and more – have intentionally held their annual conferences in Eau Claire to get a taste of what’s happening and learn more about what we’re onto here.

THE ATTITUDINAL DIVIDE

In many people, this kind of coverage and attention elicits a visceral response of either extreme pride or extreme skepticism and sarcasm. And it’s true, many of these pieces don’t dig too far below the surface. They start with a hooky/clickbaity headline (maybe using a phrase like “mini-Portland”), hit the recent high points, leave out tons of cool stuff, probably mention Bon Iver, and get the clicks – because that’s frankly all they have room and time for. Yet others, like the cover story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel or the hour-long program on Wisconsin Public Radio, dig in quite a bit further to tell the deeper tale and uncover interesting nuances.

The Bon Iver factor, and by extension the Eaux Claires Festival factor, is hard to ignore when you consider the causation of this coverage. It’s quite possible most of these articles wouldn’t be written without those elements – it’s the window through which many people from the outside suddenly look into this community. But by that same token none of these articles would be written if, when they looked through that window, they found a dead town with nothing else of interest. So thankfully, they are finding things. In spades. And that’s due to the work of a staggering number of people beyond Mr. Vernon who’ve been getting their hands dirty for the past couple decades or more making positive things happen. That stuff backs up the curiosity. So it’s the combination of both factors – the sizzle and the steak – that creates the wave of coverage we’re seeing now.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must acknowledge that due to my role at Volume One and throughout the community, I’m frequently on the list of people these reporters reach out to for comment and context. So I’ve seen behind the curtain of this newfound attention and I can assure you – there’s no secret public relations push going on. No publicist. These are real, organic stories about a Midwestern community in a rebirth. And no matter how skeptical one may be of Eau Claire’s new status – be it either real or perceived – this recent splash is far better for us than dead air. This kind of coverage can bring real dollars into our community through bursts of tourism, increased tax base, and yes, it can even attract entrepreneurs and companies that create jobs.

But still, something about it all leaves me a bit unsettled – a doubt lingering in the back of my mind like some kind of communal imposter syndrome. Is all this legit? What does it really mean? What about all the problems that get overlooked? And most importantly – as locals, what is our role in it all going forward?

Recent Media Coverage About
Eau Claire, WI

The following articles originate from media organizations throughout the Midwest as well as on both coasts and places between. These pieces (with titles sometimes paraphrased), all have a focus on the broader Eau Claire community and its offerings, articles focused only on Eaux Claires or other major singular events were left out, as it would considerably lengthen the list.

January

Minneapolis Star Tribune
Six Best Places to Go in 2017

March

Minnesota Public Radio News
Destination Dining

Minnesota Monthly
Weekend Getaways: Eau Claire

Minnesota Public Radio Classical
Movable Feast

May

Milwaukee Magazine
Guide to Eau Claire

Thrillist
Best Small Towns to Visit in All 50 States

Madison Magazine
Eau Claire: Nightlife & Wildlife

June

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Eau Claire is one of Wisconsin’s Most Underrated Getaways

Artful Living
Turning Up the Volume in Eau Claire

Noisey (Vice)
Discovering the Secret Jazz History of Eau Claire, WI

July

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
How Eau Claire Became a Magnet for Artsy Millennials in Wisconsin

The Joy Cardin Show, WPR
What Can Be Learned from Eau Claire About Attracting Youth, Business, & Tourism?

Thrillist
This Small Town in Wisconsin is the Mini-Portland of Your Dreams

Philly.com
A Hipster Scene Booms in Eau Claire, WI

Wisconsin Public Radio Online
Why is Eau Claire Drawing Young, Creative People?

Radio Milwaukee
The (Re)making of Eau(x) Claire(s)

Summer 2016

TIME
A Festival That Brings it Home

Outside Magazine
16 Best Places to Live in the US

Madison Magazine
How Eaux Claires is Changing Eau Claire

Smart Asset
The Least Stressed Cities in America

A GROWING MIGRATION?

These are questions many have asked in the wake of the wave of praise. And whether it’s all “real” tends to depend on whom you ask and what particular biases or beefs they already carry with them. None of the articles suggest that this place is perfect – we all know it’s far from it, and your average reader likely understands that as well. I’ll be the first to tell you we’ve got a ways to go and people need to roll up their sleeves, keep solving problems, and building ourselves up. But the entrepreneurial and cultural migration these articles describe? It’s not made up. It’s really happening, both at the hands of former locals returning and thanks to people arriving here for the very first time. In just the last two years, the following kinds of stories have started to become more commonplace:

Becca Cooke, 29, returned here to her hometown from California and opened Red’s Mercantile, a boutique downtown retailer.

Justin Green, 31, moved his wife and two kids here from Austin, TX to open a recording studio and performance space, Toy Car Studios, on Eau Claire’s northeast side.

Aaron Salmon, 42, returned with his family here from Chicago, started a community coding group, Code for Eau Claire, and is now set to open SHIFT, a downtown cyclery and coffee shop, with his wife Laura and others.

Elizabeth de Cleyre, 29, moved here from Portland, OR and is now collaborating with two other transplants, Margaret Leonard, 31, who moved from Milwaukee, and Jill Heinke Moen, 35, who moved from Oakland, CA, to work toward opening a bookstore downtown called Dotters Books.

Adam and Alicia Condit, both 34, are moving their three kids up from Iowa right now to open a new running store on Barstow Street this fall.

I could seriously go on. The stories are out there and the list is growing quickly, as are the programs offered at our local institutions to support these growing entrepreneurial trends.

But why do these types of small “lifestyle” businesses even matter? While you never know, it’s true they’re not likely, nor intended, to become the next Jamf or Curt Manufacturing employing hundreds of people. However, they still build the culture and go toward attracting the type of talent that can start those ventures, or be part of the workforce that supplies one that locates here. They strongly signal this place is growing and changing, and that there’s a new vitality taking hold. That is what business leaders look for. You could perhaps call these examples anecdotal, and they are. But there are real stats to back up this influx of young citizens, too. In fact, while many Wisconsin towns are losing population, Eau Claire is second to only Madison among Wisconsin’s 10 largest cities in population growth, growing at a respectable clip of more than 3% since 2010. At this point, the migration appears to be real.

But why would people in much bigger cities with so many more opportunities have any interest whatsoever in coming to a place like Eau Claire? Well, it’s a common story. After living in those cities a while many say they start to feel too big, too expensive, and they reqire too much drive time. Young professionals get to a stage where they start thinking about starting families and buying homes and a place like Eau Claire starts looking much more attractive. But more interestingly, ambitious types who are thinking about striking out on their own endeavors or starting businesses are finding many of the country’s bigger cities frequently feel a little like the loop is already closed. So many ideas are taken, niches are filled, and the collective sense that residents are building a community together is lacking. For the most part the sense of “place” is already built and everyone starts protecting what they have. In a smaller scene on the rise, like Eau Claire, there’s still a wide berth to grab onto an idea that hasn’t been done yet, a welcoming and networked vibe to seed and feed the launch, and a lower cost to make it all happen. And that’s part of why people in bigger cities read articles on places like Eau Claire with great interest. To them, we can sound like paradise.

As for all the new “hot spots” so frequently referenced in the coverage – the festivals, breweries, hotels, restaurants, etc – obviously those are real too. In roughly the last five years Eau Claire has grown from zero local breweries and distilleries to five. In the last three years we’ve gone from three major outdoor music festivals to six. In the last year downtown hotel rooms grew from zero to 148 at two properties. And of the dozen new restaurants and coffee shops that opened in Eau Claire in the last year, at least a third have some focus on local ingredients and regionality – an element that publications like these love because it helps elevate the authentic character inherent to the region.

And the wave of recognition isn’t over yet. This fall the Wisconsin Department of Tourism has determined Eau Claire is the site for its annual sanctioned media tour – a three-day span in which two dozen travel journalists, bloggers, and tastemakers gather to explore a specific area of the state for future coverage. They stay at the hotels, eat at the restaurants, explore the attractions and then help tell the story of the destination overall. So it’s likely we’ll see continued consideration across the coming months. Our story is just beginning to be told.

WHAT COMES NEXT?

Some people are rattled and feel all this attention somehow puts Eau Claire at risk – that perhaps our easy-going pace of life will be challenged. That hoards of jobless college grads will arrive, rents will skyrocket, “yuppie and/or hipster” tastes will dominate, and that the gentrification machine will take over. Is that possible? I suppose, but it’s not likely. To me, if we’re careful and conscious, I don’t think we have to look at words like “growth” and “progress” as the opposite of “character” and “identity.” In fact it’s that character – both long held and newly budding – that is compelling people to write about us in the first place. We already strike a balance, we now just need to grow both sides equally.

Regardless of your take on the matter, it’s clear that with this attention we’ve been given a new tool to work with as a community. Now it’s just about how we want to use it. One mistake is to consider it a joke – to laugh, pull up our shield, and push it all away. Another would be to sit back and enjoy the moment. But perhaps the worst mistake would be to think that our work here is done. No, now is the time we lean in hard and leverage it all toward more meaningful gains socially, culturally, and economically. It’s when you accelerate the feedback loop. It’s when you use this new tool, along with those that already existed, and turn it into jobs, projects, taxes, and solutions for social issues. But the usefulness of recognition like this has an expiration date, and the clock is already ticking. We can’t miss the wave. As a community, at all levels both public and private, we need to define who we want to be, remove all obstacles to smart growth, then get on the board and ride.

Eau Claire's Booming Feedback Loop
a timely community talk by Volume One's Nick Meyer

More info, and 90-second excerpt video »

I’ve described why coverage like this can happen, why outsiders may be interested in a place like ours, and how it can be easier to make things happen here as a newcomer. But to be clear, a smaller, growing scene like the one here in Eau Claire can also come with its challenges to new businesses and ideas. It may be easier to get something going and see early support, but with a smaller population base and a more “set in its ways” mainstream attitude, it can be harder to keep the doors open. A lot of our population is still slow to change, slow to get outside its comfort zone, and unaware of the power it has to help shape this place for the better not only culturally but economically.

So as I asked, as locals, what is our responsibility in all this going forward? In my opinion the most critical thing each and every one of us can do is engage in this new culture. Pay attention. Talk to your friends and family about the good things happening that need our support. Be thoughtful about how and where you spend your money. And in whatever ways work for you, believe in, speak about, and participate in our community’s current and coming success. Whether all this attention puts you in the camp of extreme pride or extreme skepticism, supporting the good things happening can’t fail us.

In fact, it’s the only truly real thing we have.