Wednesday, Oct. 9th, 2019

State Theatre Reopens as Hub for Nonprofits, Job Training – and Film Screenings, Too

No one has ever accused Joe Luginbill of thinking too small. The 25-year-old Eau Claire native was elected to the school board at age 20, and has been a YouTube chef, a nonprofit founder, a child welfare caseworker, and a member of countless committees, commissions, and campaigns, both locally and nationally.

Now, Luginbill is spearheading the re-opening of downtown Eau Claire’s historic State Theatre as a multifaceted facility that will provide office space for nonprofit groups, classrooms for workforce development programs, and a theater for film screenings – not to mention other soon-to-be-announced plans that will help draw the public into what until last year was the home of the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center.

“A building this beautiful with this much potential shouldn’t be sitting dormant,” said Luginbill, whose nonprofit group, the Luginbill Children’s Foundation, will operate the State, which opened in 1926 for vaudeville shows before becoming a movie theater and arts center.

“One of the reasons I’m really excited we’re doing it is there’s a really good synergy between what we’re doing and what Pablo is doing.” – Joe Luginbill

A ribbon-cutting and the re-lighting of the theater marquee is planned for 5pm on Friday, Oct. 11, at what is now dubbed the State Theatre and Community Center, 316 Eau Claire St. The ceremony will be followed by a celebration in the theater lobby, which will include refreshments, pop-up shops, music and art, and resource tables from local nonprofits, some of whom will soon make their homes at the State. At 7pm, the theater itself will host a screening of the documentary For They Know Not What They Do, which is part of the UW-Eau Claire’s LGBT-themed freaQweek.

The State Theatre ended its run as downtown Eau Claire’s biggest cultural arts venue when the Pablo Center at the Confluence opened just a few blocks away last fall. In February, the building was purchased by Mohammad Hashlamoun of Elk Mound, who owns several businesses in the Chippewa Valley, including the Azara Vape Bar, 624 Water St.; My Office Lounge, 408 Galloway St.; and Momentum Auto Dealership, 3624 Mall Drive. While Hashlamoun owns the building, the Luginbill Children’s Foundation will oversee activities there.

The building sat quietly for most of the year until becoming a hub of activity over the past few weeks thanks to a program overseen by Workforce Resource Inc., a nonprofit that provides job training. The program, funded by a Wisconsin Fast Forward Grant from the state of Wisconsin, involved 17 to 20 participants learning construction skills. The participants worked on a variety of projects inside and outside the building, including remodeling, repairing, and painting, Luginbill said. He hopes this is the first of many workforce development programs to be held in the part of the State Theatre that previously housed the Janet Carson Gallery.

“One of the reasons I’m really excited we’re doing it is there’s a really good synergy between what we’re doing and what Pablo is doing,” Luginbill said, noting that the Pablo Center also offers workforce development programming, specifically aimed at young people.

Meanwhile, the Farwell Street-facing portion of the building, which previously housed offices for ECRAC and other arts entities, will now be used by community nonprofits. The groups will be able to rent their own offices as well as used shared space for meetings, educational sessions, fundraisers, and other gatherings. “There is a hunger and a desire for more opportunities to network and collaborate with other nonprofits,” Luginbill said.

As for the 1,100-seat-theater itself, Luginbill said it will be used to screen movies, including film marathons and festivals. “There are so many different kinds of venues downtown, and we have our own style and flair which will work well for certain events,” he said. “I think we will fit very nicely within the fabric of all the groups that are downtown.”

Like many Eau Claire residents, Luginbill feels great nostalgia for the State Theatre – as both an audience member and a performer – but he is looking forward to helping write a new chapter in the building’s history.

“There’s a lot of work to be done here still,” he said. “One of the motivations of bringing people back in is to see the potential … and inspiring people to get involved and volunteer.”

Learn more about the State Theatre and Community Center at www.facebook.com/TheStateEauClaire

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It’s Happening: UWEC Plans to Start $100M Arena Project by Next Summer

Click images for a closer look.
Images: Ayres Associates and Kahler Slater | Click images for a closer look.

Long-Planned Sonnentag Center on Menomonie Street Will Be Partnership with YMCA, Mayo ...

Five years after announcing plans for a huge new event and recreation complex to replace Zorn Arena, UW-Eau Claire expects to break ground on the $90 million to $100 million project by next summer, Chancellor James Schmidt said this week.

The complex – to be built along Menomonie Street on land donated by alumni John and Carolyn Sonnentag – will be shared by the university, the Chippewa Valley YMCA, and Mayo Clinic Health System. The project will follow the same kind of public-private partnership model employed to build and operate the Pablo Center at the Confluence, creating a facility that will draw together a wide cross-section of Chippewa Valley residents, students and townies alike.

“Anything that helps bring socioeconomic and different kinds of age groups together is a good thing.” – UW-Eau CLaire Chancellor James Schmidt

“Anything that helps bring socioeconomic and different kinds of age groups together is a good thing,” Schmidt said Tuesday, two days before a planned presentation to the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents, who meet this week in Superior. Schmidt isn’t going to the Regents to ask for money: In fact, UWEC officials believe that most – if not all – of the university’s share of the cost will be covered by donors. Much of this will come from the Sonnentags, who pledged about $10 million – including the property – back in 2014. Schmidt said the university is also working with other potential donors.

UWEC’s share of the project’s cost will be in the $40 million to $45 million range, Schmidt said. The YMCA portion will be $45 million to $47 million, while Mayo Clinic’s component will cost between $11 million and $13 million.

Schmidt told Volume One editors that he wants to put shovels in the dirt along Menomonie Street by next July 1. After that, the project would take 18 to 24 months to reach completion.

Creating the Sonnentag Event and Recreation Complex will help the university meet its long-identified desire to replace Zorn Arena, which was built in 1952 and seats only about 2,500 for basketball games. Current plans call for the arena at the Sonnentag Complex to seat at least 4,100, somewhat less than the 5,500 to 6,000 considered for a new arena several years ago.

Images: Ayres Associates and Kahler Slater | Click images for a closer look.
Images: Ayres Associates and Kahler Slater | Click images for a closer look.

 “It’s what the university needs for its use,” Mike Rindo, UWEC’s assistant chancellor for facilities and university relations, said of the 4,100 figure. “Whether the community would like to see something bigger, that’s an open question.” The university expects to use the new arena only 65 to 75 days a year, leaving its calendar open for numerous community uses, from commencement ceremonies to conventions to concerts.

In addition to providing a replacement for Zorn Arena, which would be demolished, the Sonnentag Complex will create wellness and aquatic facilities to be shared by YMCA members and UWEC students as well as a home for the Mayo Clinic’s sports medicine practice. The shared location will create a variety of synergies and savings: For example, Mayo Clinic’s portion of the facility will be be just below space used by by the university’s kinesiology department as well as a new master’s degree program in athletic training.

The facility’s ownership structure will be similar to what has been used with the Pablo Center at the Confluence: A nonprofit entity, Eau Claire Community Complex Inc., has been created to own the facility, and the partners – in this case UWEC, YMCA, and Mayo Clinic – will lease parts of it. While Thursday’s presentation to the Board of Regents will be purely informational, down the road the Regents will need to approve two components of the project: the university’s lease of its portion of the complex and a potential student referendum seeking the approval of fees to fund the facility’s ongoing costs.

“By working together with partners, as was the case with the Pablo Center, the costs associated with leased space within the Sonnentag Complex will be significantly less for students when compared to the traditional funding model that relies almost exclusively on student fees for design, construction, and operational costs of such a facility,” university officials wrote in a memo to the Board of Regents. “As with the Pablo Center, a major funding source will be philanthropy from alumni and friends locally and around the country.”

Schmidt said site prep work will be completed this year, although one building on the site will be left for use by contractors during construction. The property, formerly owned by the Sonnentags’ company, County Materials Corp., was donated to the university-affiliated Blugold Real Estate Foundation in 2014. The 30-acre site is large enough to allow for future expansion, Rindo said, and is adjacent to privately owned land that is ideal for redevelopment as well. And, while it is not located on campus, the Sonnentag Complex site is near other facilities used by the university and community, including Carson Park, Hobbs Ice Arena, and the Menard YMCA Tennis Center.

More Concept Images ...

Images: Ayres Associates and Kahler Slater | Click images for a closer look.
Images: Ayres Associates and Kahler Slater | Click images for a closer look. 

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Tuesday, Oct. 8th, 2019

Eaux Claires Hiver Drops Lineup (Nov. 2019 + Downtown Eau Claire)

Today, the organizers of the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival announced the full details and lineup for Eaux Claires Hiver, a special winter extension of the fest happening at the Pablo Center and various venues Nov. 21-24. The festival also announced that Eaux Claires V will return in July 2020, though without specific dates quite yet.

Eaux Claires Hiver covers four days of immersive performances, talks, and other things from a lineup of artists including Ani DiFranco, Pieta Brown, Jon Hopkins, Aaron Dessner, Poliça, William Britelle, and various Justin Vernon projects, among others. 

Top down: Ani DiFranco, Gail Ann Dorsey, Jon Hopkins
Top down: Ani DiFranco, Gail Ann Dorsey, Jon Hopkins

Three Eaux-Chunks

There’s seems to be three chunks to this thing – an opening kickoff talk between Justin Vernon and Ani DiFranco on Nov. 21, then two days of 37d03d performances where tons of various artists present music, literature, and visual art Nov. 22-23. And then that overlaps with the third chunk happening Nov. 22-24 where Justin Vernon and TU Dance present their collaborative stage show “Come Through” (which was announced earlier this year and for which tickets are already on sale).

DiFranco and Vernon’s talk on Nov. 21 in the RCU Theatre is a separate ticket price (ranging from $30 to $100) and will reportedly include some music and special guests, of course. “Ani DiFranco is the first person I ever heard of who wrote, arranged, engineered, mixed and released her own music,” says Justin Vernon in the festival’s press release. “She is a mind-blowing songwriter and inspiration. I want to ask her the questions I've always wanted to ask her; about her journey, her hardships, and victories. And I want an audience there because the answers will be too special to hold on to as one person. AND ... there will be some music ... and surprise guests.” 

Then for the next two days, 37d03d performances will happen in various venues Nov. 22-23. The idea is that this is a residency of sorts where artists on the lineup will collaborate, brew up ideas, perform with each other, and learn in front of an audience – with the intent of birthing or informing some art for Eaux Claires V when it happens in 2020. Here’s the thing, though: there are only 500 two-day tickets available – at $80 a pop – that cover all events after 6pm Nov. 22 and 23, so get ‘em fast.

Eaux Claires Hiver 37d03d Lineup*
Nov. 22-23

FEATURING ...

JT Bates
William Brittelle
Pieta Brown
S. Carey
Aaron Dessner
Gail Ann Dorsey
hrrrbek
Jon Hopkins
Elsa Jensen
La Force
Mike Lewis
Metropolis Ensemble
Ryan Olson
Shahzad Ismaily
Michael Perry
Polica
Talos
Korde Arrington Tuttle
Justin Vernon
Jeremy Ylvisaker

*This is just part of the festival

Tickets for Ani DiFranco and Justin Vernon in Conversation, and the two-day 37d03d performances (separate tickets) go on sale next week Tuesday Oct. 15 at 10am CST at pablocenter.org. Tickets for “Come Through” are already on sale for $42.50-$125.

Along with the announcement, the festival dropped a classic Michael Perry-narrated video (above) that poetically and metaphorically sheds (some?) light on the thought process behind Eaux Claires Hiver.

“Sometimes it’s best to let the moment fade. Ask yourself if you’re floatin’ in the right direction, if it’s time to reverse course, return to the source,” Perry says, over wintry scenery. “Not so much fight the current as meet the current. Sometimes you have to ask yourself if you’ve drained the river of metaphors and need to maybe portage. Climb ashore. Look inside.”

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Friday, Oct. 4th, 2019

Children’s Museum Plan Picked for Downtown Site ... What Comes Next?

The Children’s Museum of Eau Claire has taken the first step toward building a newer, bigger home for juvenile joy on North Barstow Street in Eau Claire. On Thursday, the city’s Redevelopment Authority voted to pursue a memorandum of understanding with the Children’s Museum and its partner, Monarch Ventures, to build on the so-called “liner site,” a now-empty city-owned parcel between North Barstow and the new(ish) downtown parking ramp.

The museum, its partner, and the RDA will begin negotiations to finalize the deal, which could take up to 90 days, said Aaron White, the city’s economic development manager. Once the memorandum of understanding is completed, a developer agreement will be reached, and construction will follow. While there’s no definite timeline yet, White said construction wouldn’t begin until spring 2020 at the earlier.

The “liner site,” where the downtown post office stood until a few years ago, covers about six-tenths of an acre and is bordered by the parking ramp, North Barstow Street, Galloway Street, and Riverfront Terrace. The RDA chose the plan from the Children’s Museum and Monarch over one from Merge Urban Development Group of Cedar Falls, Iowa.

The Children’s Museum proposal includes a two-story, 23,500-square-foot museum next to a 27,000-square-foot building that would house a first-floor restaurant and two stories of commercial space. The 9,000-square-foot eatery, which would be owned by Hudson restaurateur Andrew Kron, would include covered and outdoor patios for diners. (Officials are mum about the details of the restaurant.)

The
The "liner site" is the grassy area between North Barstow and the new(ish) downtown parking ramp.

The new children’s museum would be larger than the current 15,400-square-foot facility at 220 S. Barstow St. and would include larger exhibit space, a food and beverage option, and 5,000 square feet of green space as well as facilities for the Family Resource Center of Eau Claire and a 4-year-old kindergarten in partnership with the Eau Claire school district.

“We will be able to have parking for visitors, we will be able to have the front entrance set back a little from the street, and we will be able to make the facility more accessible and safe,” museum executive director Mike McHorney told WEAU 13 News.

Last year, a new Children’s Museum was part of a proposal to redevelop the adjacent Block 7. The RDA selected that plan – which came from Eau Claire-based Pablo Properties – after a request for proposals from developers. However, Pablo Properties decided earlier this year that the project – which also included an office building, a public plaza, and a “container park” on the liner site – wasn’t financially viable. This sent the RDA, and the Children’s Museum, back to square one.

Now that the RDA has selected a partner for redeveloping the liner site, it will soon chose one for Block 7 as well. It will pick between proposals from Eau Claire’s Commonweal Development and Madison-based Movin’ Out Inc., both of which call for apartment complexes with the possibility of commercial space as well. The RDA’s decision on Block 7 could come as early as Wednesday, Oct. 16.

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Monday, Sep. 30th, 2019

[UPDATED] Brace Yourself: Winter Eaux Claires is Coming?

[UDATED 10-8] Eaux Claires released the video today, more news to come ...

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It’s starting to look like we might get a slice of Eaux Claires in 2019 after all. Maybe? On Sunday, a short teaser video popped up on YouTube called “Eaux Claires Hiver” with the dates Nov. 21-24 in the description. It featured some wintry wooded visuals and, of course, a spoken word message from the festival’s official narrator Michael Perry. However, the video has since been hidden. Could it be some cryptic marketing technique? A logistical hiccup? Well, the locally grown music festival is prone to both, so here’s what we know right now.

• Bon Iver + TU Dance are bringing their stage show “Come Thru" to the Pablo Center for three of those four days anyway (Nov. 22-24), so one could assume that will be part of this whole thing.

• We’d previously received reports of a festival across multiple spaces in the Pablo Center, with various collaborative performances from Eaux Claires familiars in the style of the PEOPLE festival, which started in Berlin in 2016. For that festival, all the artists meet one week prior to rehearse and write new ideas and perform them for the first time with the audience. Whether or not each musician is a part of a band, the festival’s lineup is made up of the given names of all the musicians involved rather than their affiliations. But it remains to be seen whether or not that will be the case here. 

• Last December, when organizers announced Eaux Claires wouldn’t happen in 2019, they said: "We want to celebrate EVEN MORE about this REAL TOWN we call home by extolling and imagining things we haven't seen or experienced to date,” and teased doing something this year. “We will have a couple of public events in the coming months hosted at Pablo Center at the Confluence. These events will incorporate performance and dialogue about the direction we plan on taking the festival throughout the coming decade.  Looking forward to seeing you there.”

• Hiver is, of course, French for “winter.”

That’s about it for now. Keep your eyes and ears open for more details as they emerge.

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Tuesday, Sep. 24th, 2019

New Wilson Park Fountain? Eau Claire Wants Your Input

Above: The fountain in question.
Above: The fountain in question.

The fountain in Eau Claire’s Wilson Park – a downtown fixture for more than a century – hasn’t worked for nearly a year and needs to be replaced, and the city is seeking input from community members on what a new fountain could look like. 

The city will hold the first of four planned Wilson Park Fountain Public Design Workshops from 6-8:30pm on Thursday, Oct. 3, in the North Conference Room at Eau Claire City Hall, 203 S. Farwell St. Madison-based Design Studio Etc. will lead the workshop, and city staff will be on hand to take questions and discuss the process. 

“The Oct. 3 event is the first of four planned public meetings where a shared vision will be created,” the city said in a press release. “Participants will have an active and direct role in crafting designs that residents will then have an opportunity to vote on. Additional public workshops and online surveys will be used to narrow down the design alternatives to a final preferred design.” The remaining three public meetings haven’t yet been scheduled, but one will likely be held during the first half of November with two more during December.

The current fountain, which was installed in the 1960s, suffered a “catastrophic” pipe failure last fall, and the city determined the fountain would have to be partially or fully removed to fix problem. Because this was not seen as cost-effective, the city instead set aside $147,000 in its 2020 capital budget to replace the fountain. 

To learn more about the project, including upcoming workshop dates when they are scheduled, visit the city's website or contact Josh Solinger at joshua.solinger@eauclairewi.gov.

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Monday, Sep. 23rd, 2019

Apartments, Restaurants, and a New Museum: Downtown Eau Claire Lots See New Proposals

The
The "Liner Site" is shown to the left, in front of the parking garage. "Block 7" is currently a parking lot, shown to the right. Both parcels are on N. Barstow Street in downtown Eau Claire.

Apartments, restaurants, and maybe a new home for the children’s museum: These are among developers’ proposed uses for two prime parcels in downtown Eau Claire. Based upon these recently submitted plans, the Eau Claire Redevelopment Authority will soon decide which developers will be allowed to build on the two city-owned properties along North Barstow Street.

On Wednesday, Sept. 18, the RDA heard brief presentations about four proposals, two of them for Block 7 (which is now a parking lot at the corner of North Barstow and Wisconsin streets) and two of them for the so-called liner site (between North Barstow and the parking ramp). The seven-member commission is expected to meet in closed session sometime in October to discuss the proposals and choose which developers the city wishes to work with.

The process is a bit of déjà vu for the RDA: Last fall, the RDA selected bids from Eau Claire-based Pablo Properties for both sites, and began final negotiations with the developer. Pablo Properties – whose other projects include the Jamf office building and the remodeled Lismore hotel – wanted to build a office building and new children’s museum on Block 7 and an innovative “container park” on the liner site. However, Pablo pulled out of the deal in June, saying the project was no longer financially viable. That decision sent the RDA back to the drawing board, and the city soon put out another request for proposals from prospective developers, which were due in August. The four proposals are outlined below.

Block 7

Block 7 – sometimes dubbed the Livery lot because of its location across the street from the Livery Restaurant & Saloon, 316 Wisconsin St. – is a 1.6-acre parcel bordered by North Barstow, Galloway, and Wisconsin streets. Over the summer, the city asked developers for plans that were “commercial, residential, mixed use, or a combination thereof.” Two were received:

Commonweal Development

Twice before, this Eau Claire based developer (which, among other things, built the Haymarket Landing mixed-use building across from the Pablo Center) has submitted plans for one (or both) of the sites. Its current plan, prepared with River Valley Architects, calls for four four-story apartment buildings clustered around a central plaza and built atop underground parking. The complex would include 182 studio, one-, and two-bedroom apartments, and perhaps ground-floor commercial space. Stuart Schaefer of Commonweal told the RDA that while filling some commercial space is downtown Eau Claire has been a challenge, there is still strong demand for downtown housing.

Movin’ Out Inc.

Madison-based development firm Movin’ Out also proposed a mostly residential approach to Block 7, with two three-story buildings, both of them containing one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments. The 40 to 50 units would be aimed at mixed-income tenants, and the project would be funded with the help of tax credits from the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority.  Most units would be set aside for renters making between 30% and 60% of the county’s median income, while other units would be available at market rates. “We feel the location, right in the middle of downtown Eau Claire, can best address a key need of providing affordable housing close to employers,” Movin’ Out said in its proposal. The developer added that it was open to partnering “with other respondents or interested parties such as a market-rate developer or the Eau Claire Children’s Museum.”

Liner Site

This site, where the downtown post office stood until a few years ago, covers about six-tenths of an acre and is bordered by the parking ramp, North Barstow Street, Galloway Street, and Riverfront Terrace. The RDA received two proposals to develop this property:

Children’s Museum of Eau Claire

The children’s museum – which had been part of Pablo Properties’ previous plans for Block 7, which didn’t reach fruition – is now partnering with Monarch Ventures to build a two-story, 23,500-square-foot museum next to a 27,000-square-foot building that would house a first-floor restaurant and two stories of commercial space. The 9,000-square-foot eatery, which would be owned by Hudson restaurateur Andrew Kron, would include covered and outdoor patios for diners. The new children’s museum would be larger than the current facility at 220 S. Barstow St. and would include larger exhibit space, a food and beverage option, and 5,000 square feet of green space as well as facilities for the Family Resource Center of Eau Claire and a 4-year-old kindergarten.

Merge Urban Development Group

Merge, which has offices in Madison and Cedar Falls, Iowa, proposes a mixed-use development that would go hand-in-hand with the company’s plans for the Railroad Lot across North Barstow Street. A seven-story building fronting North Barstow would feature space for a restaurant and four micro-sized retailers on the first floor with 71 apartments above, ranging in size from efficiencies to two-bedroom units. A smaller building, facing Riverfront Terrace on the parking ramp’s south side, would include 20 additional apartments, including four walk-ups. Merge says 60% of the apartments would be priced for people making 80% of the county median income. The use of sustainable “mass timber” – a strong construction material made of layers of wood – is a unique component of this proposal.

Aaron White, the city’s economic development manager, told RDA members on Sept. 18 that he was still working with city staff members to get detailed financial analyses of the proposals. City Manager Dale Peters told RDA members that the city wanted to act on the proposals quickly, and that a special meeting would likely be scheduled before the committee’s next regular meeting, which is slated for Wednesday, Oct. 16.

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Friday, Sep. 6th, 2019

Elton John Gushes, the Times Facetimes: Bon Iver Press Rolls In

Now that this new Bon Iver record i,i is out there in the world in every shape and form, it’s leading to some pretty great press for the band, especially this week. 

First up, a li’l ol’ paper called the New York Times did a deep dive on the song “iMi” for its video series called Diary Of A Song. It’s a cool 8-minute video which finds journalist Joe Coscarelli video chatting with many of dudes involved in the song’s creation including Justin Vernon (of course), Brad Cook, Chris Messina, Mike Noyce, Trever Hagen, Velvet Negroni and a bunch more. It traces the history of “iMi,” a sonically dense and gorgeous tune which supposedly dates back half-a-decade to early experimental recording sessions between Vernon and Hagen. Over the years, they’ve added stuff, shaped it, messed around, and the song in its final version has come to involve 28 people in its creation. Vernon tweeted his praise of the article Thursday: “This thing... wow... rarely does doing a piece of press actually turn out to be art.” I’m sure that’s a direct reference to the myriad of Bon Iver articles published in Volume One over the years, many of which I’ve written myself, and none of which should probably be called “art.” Oh well. Try, try, again I suppose. FYI, there’s a paywall on the NYT website (‘cause art ain’t free) but you can still tiptoe around it to watch the video here: (or, you know, below) ...

Then in another spicy bit of press, Vernon recently appeared on Elton John’s Beats 1 radio show, Elton John’s Rocket Hour, and the iconic, legendary recording artist … was very humble responding to Elton John’s waterfall of praise. Seriously, John (who I guess knows a little something about good music?) is clearly a huge Bon Iver fan saying stuff like "I've been a fan of yours for so long” and "it's such an honor for me to talk to you” and "Oh my God, your new music is so fantastic” and “I love you." It’s very entertaining, and by the end of the chat, the two make plans to collab on something maybe. So that’s cool. Listen to that on Apple Music.

And in a final bit of Bon news, Vernon and his on-and-off collaborator Kanye West reunited as features on a new Francis and the Lights song called “Take Me To The Light” — and it’s pretty good! You can pretty much stream that anywhere, but also, you know below:

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Friday, Aug. 16th, 2019

COMMUNICATION WIN: Working Payphone Still Exists in Downtown Eau Claire

Above: Phone.
Above: Phone.

First, a short history. The first payphone was installed on a street corner in downtown Hartford, Connecticut in 1889 by William Gray, the son of Scottish immigrants. As the story goes, Gray’s wife had fallen very ill, and he needed to use an agent-operated telephone pay station to call the doctor. These telephone pay stations were usually few and far between, so odds are Gray had to run all over Hartford looking for a station and beg to budge in line for it. He got increasingly frustrated with the inconvenient design of these stations, and thus, to alleviate this frustration, the idea for the first payphone was born.

Eventually the payphone rose to prominence, but (as you surely know) has slowly fallen into near-obscurity thanks to landlines and cell phones. According to the FCC, there are only about 100,000 phone booths left in the United States.

And some of them are close to home. 

One of the last, working payphones in Eau Claire just happens to be on North Barstow Street, which is in walking distance of Volume One World Headquarters – so naturally, they sent a twenty-year-old intern (me) to suss it out.

Thar she blows.
Thar she blows.

I didn’t know exactly where the payphone was, so my plan was to just walk around North Barstow until I found it. Luckily, it wasn’t hard to find. It was standing tall and forgotten in the afternoon sun right across the road from Star Cup (316 N Barstow St.), and I nearly got run over by a huge beverage delivery truck as I took the picture you see above. It does indeed work, but the “interface” was not immediately user friendly to me. I assumed I could pick up the receiver, drop in two quarters (for what I thought was a local call), and the dial tone would just sputter out of the speaker. But I soon learned how inexperienced I really was.

As it turns out, the receiver needs to be hanging from the cradle when you insert your coins or nothing will happen, and the delivery truck driver who nearly ran you over will try to chat with you about payphones as you stand there, confused and upset that this machine ate your quarters. It took me about three tries until I got the steps right. 

As it turns out, the receiver needs to be hanging from the cradle when you insert your coins or nothing will happen, and the delivery truck driver who nearly ran you over will try to chat with you about payphones as you stand there, confused and upset that this machine ate your quarters. It took me about three tries until I got the steps right. After I was confident it was working, I stood there for another few seconds waiting to hear my roommate’s phone ringing on the other end.

I did not hear said ringing.

At this point, I became a little frustrated, and I almost threw in the metaphorical towel, but then I heard the voice. There was a faint, womanly voice coming out of the receiver in my hand, and I had to crush my ear with the speaker to better hear it, and what she said was this: “Please insert one dollar.”

Above: Quarter-guzzling legacy telecommunications technology.
Above: Quarter-guzzling legacy telecommunications technology.

What?! One dollar? But, my roommate lives in Eau Claire! That’s a local call, isn’t it?

Begrudgingly, I fished around in my purse for another two quarters and fed the greedy payphone one more time. I was able to call my roommate (who is very patient with me), but the number was unfamiliar so she declined to answer. I left a message.

I felt extremely stupid dialing her number from a payphone as I had my cell phone with all her contact information in one hand and the very quiet receiver pressed to my ear in the other. It was like the old and the new worlds colliding on that corner of Barstow and Madison. But hey, it worked.

And for the low, low price of fifty cents for a local call (one dollar for a non-local cell phone), you too can interact with history.


The idea for this adventure was inspired by an Instagram post  from the Chippewa Valley Museum, which is looking for more local payphones. If you know of one, let them know!

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