Winning Winter: Eau Claire is chosen for program to promote winter fun

Lauren Fisher, photos by Andrea Paulseth

Wintermission is a project by 8 80 Cities, a Toronto-based nonprofit spearheading the movement to enhance mobility and social connections within public spaces.
Wintermission is a project by 8 80 Cities, a Toronto-based nonprofit spearheading the movement to enhance mobility and social connections within public spaces.

Eau Claire is about to get serious about achieving winter wonderland status. In January, the city was selected out of 63 applicant cities to participate in Wintermission, an initiative to encourage three “vanguard” communities to redouble their efforts to be just as fun, lively, and accessible in the winter as they are in the warmer months. Eau Claire – along with Buffalo, New York, and Leadville, Colorado – will participate in this two-year program to improve public life and social engagement in winter.

“It‘s more than just having fun, it’s about being a healthy community in the winter instead of hibernating.” – Scott Allen, City of Eau Claire Community Development Director, on being a Wintermission city

Wintermission is a project by 8 80 Cities, a Toronto-based nonprofit organization spearheading the movement to enhance mobility and social connections within public spaces to create healthy, equatable communities. The organization partnered with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to start Wintermission as a specific focus of its overall goal to create cities that are as engaging for 8-year-olds as they are for 80-year-olds.

“Winter is a time when people tend to cut back on social and physical activity, and community life dries up; feelings of isolation are especially acute for people who are new to a community and not indoctrinated to winter sports and activities,” Sharon Roerty, senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said. “That can have a negative impact on health and well-being.”

City of Eau Claire Community Development Director Scott Allen, Regional Economic Development Director for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation Heather Smith, and Visit Eau Claire Public Relations Manager Mack John attended Winter Cities Shake-Up 2019 in Saskatoon, Canada, to learn about ways to encourage community engagement during the winter.

“It‘s more than just having fun, it’s about being a healthy community in the winter instead of hibernating,” Allen said. “We have the benefit and blessing of having the ski jump hill here. We have other access with Lake Altoona and such. … What more can we do with what we already have?”

Conference leaders encouraged attendees to consider the constants of winter; while snow and cold are variables that sometimes don’t occur, darkness can be counted on November through February.

The city is already off to a good start, Allen said, with investments in lighting up the city during the darker months. Features such as lights on the Phoenix Park bridge, the Pablo Center at the Confluence, and (eventually) the Grand Avenue and Confluence Crossing bridges, illuminate the nights and attract activity within the city center. Other areas of exploration include public transportation and ease of trail use.

“I made a commitment when I got back from the conference,” Smith said. “My one specific takeaway is that I’m not going to complain about winter when I get back to Eau Claire.”

Smith was quick to jump into the Wintermission project. She moved to Eau Claire almost three years ago from Kansas, and she has personally felt the impact of the colder winter on her lifestyle. She fights the urge to “cocoon” in her home and tries to see winter in a more positive light.

“Every time I talk to someone and they complain, I’m going to hit them back with something wonderful about winter,” she said.

“Everything that we learn from the technical assistance we get and from the Winter Cities conference we went to, that’s information that I can take back to the other communities within my seven counties of western Wisconsin,” Smith said. “The whole point of this is sharing best practices, so learning and then sharing and being a model.”

Allen, Smith, and John will coordinate with area organizations to host several “Pop-Up Engagement Sessions” in March. These sessions will bring the conversation to Eau Claire citizens through the Eau Claire Hmong Mutual Assistance Association, the Children’s Museum of Eau Claire, and more, using input to determine how the city could be more friendly to different communities in the winter. Representatives from 8 80 Cities and the Children & Nature Network will assist in organizing these events.

The Wintermission team will then apply feedback by devising a pilot project to be implemented during the winter of 2019-20.

“We are ecstatic to be working with such fantastic teams in Buffalo, Eau Claire, and Leadville,” Amanda O’Rourke, Executive Director of 8 80 Cities, said. “The impressive project teams these cities assembled demonstrate their passion and commitment to being national leaders in combating social isolation and improving public health through strategic investments in winter friendly public spaces.”

Eau Claire is well positioned to participate in this program, Smith said. UW-Eau Claire, the city, the City-County Health Department, Visit Eau Claire, the Children’s Museum, and many more are working together for the project.

More information about Eau Claire’s participation in Wintermission will be made available throughout the planning process.

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