Monday, May. 21st, 2018

A Mighty Mural: Oxbow launches artist-in-residence program

Chicago-based artist Molly Z
Chicago-based artist Molly Z stands across from the Eau Claire Printing Building

The corner of Farwell and Galloway is about to get prettified in a big, bold way. Chicago-based artist Molly Z will begin work on a 3,200 square foot mural on the side of the Eau Claire Printing Building on June 3 as part of The Oxbow Hotel’s first artist in residence program. The public is welcome to participate in the process during several events hosted throughout the residency – in addition to watching the image come to life over the roughly two-week project. The Oxbow Gallery will host a panel discussion on creating public art led by the artist June 9 (3-4pm). The Oxbow and Visit Eau Claire will host a Mural Appreciation Reception June 11 from 5-7pm, where people can view the nearly finished mural, enjoy live music, and get a poster of the mural live screen-printed by Tangled Up in Hue signed by Molly Z.

The artist in residence program will inspire communication between local and visiting artists, resulting in creative pollination between regions, enriching Eau Claire's art scene and spreading local character elsewhere, Oxbow co-owner Nick Meyer said.

Molly Z is a digital designer, illustrator, and muralist who uses vibrant colors and bold designs to brighten spaces and make people smile. She has created many works of art - both large and small - for special events, conferences, and products.

For more information, check out The Oxbow’s Artist in Residence webpage. Check out the May 30 issue of Volume One for the full story.

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Local Lounge Closes, Sports Bar on the Way

Image: Local Lounge
Image: Local Lounge

Today, after two and a half years in business, The Local Lounge – a bar, restaurant, and event venue on Eau Claire's westside – has closed. From their Facebook page: 

In its place, the owners will open The Varsity Club, which describes itself as "an Upscale Sports Pub for Sports FANATICS in the Chippewa Valley." They say, "We feature, Racy Fun, Craft Beers, Leagues & a Scratch Kitchen." 

They plan to offer dining, delivery, take out, and catering. The Varisty Club will be open for lunch and dinner and offer a “multi-cuisine” menu. Owners are now hiring, and they are scheduled to open June 17.

The change will not affect The Hub – an event venue next door to The Varsity Club – where all events will remain as scheduled. 

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Monday, May. 7th, 2018

A Tribute to Ray “The Menards Guy” Szmanda (1926–2018)

A Special Note from Volume One Owner & Publisher Nick Meyer

Today the news is spreading that Ray Szmanda, the Midwest-famous “Menards Guy,” a multi-decade TV commercial pitchman for everything from paint to faucets to lumber, passed away May 6 at the age of 91. For nearly 25 years a growing radius of TV viewers were introduced to his signature black glasses/blue sweater combo, his giant grin, and his seemingly relentless enthusiasm for home improvement.

Ray started the gig way back in 1976, three years before I was even born. But by the time I was about 20 and starting a stint at the Menards general office making TV commercials, Ray was still there plugging away at those cue cards, letting a huge chunk of America know exactly what was on sale that week with a pocketful of puns at the ready.

Even in his later years (he was in his mid-70s by the time I worked with him) he had a booming voice that would echo throughout the aisles of the Westside Menards, commanding attention from unsuspecting shoppers.

For about a year, every Friday I got to work alongside Ray as we shot the opener, closer, and narration of anywhere from eight to 10 commercials. That’s a lot to shoot, and we needed to hustle to get it all done. We’d sometimes be in the studio or on location, but oftentimes we’d be right out in the open in the store during regular business hours. And of course it was in the store where he’d turn heads.

Even in his later years (he was in his mid-70s by the time I worked with him) he had a booming voice that would echo throughout the aisles of the westside Eau Claire Menards, commanding attention from unsuspecting shoppers. We’d be tucked away in the paint aisle with lights, cameras, and microphones and as soon as he started in on the script at full volume, the rubbernecking from customers would be hilarious. He was a legit celebrity. Imagine for years hearing Ray’s voice on TV selling you carpet and yard supplies and then suddenly you’re actually in Menards and you hear him in real life in the aisle behind you. People were in shock. And he loved every minute of it – waving hello, shaking hands, and giving the people what they wanted with a boisterous “Save Big Money!” on command. It was as much fun as I’ve ever had at a job.

After a morning of shooting we’d break production and he’d invite us all out for lunch together, often at a pizza buffet. At lunch he wouldn’t remove his blue shirt, nametag, or his signature black glasses (which didn’t even have lenses in them due to the glare on camera). Needless to say he stuck out like a sore thumb to anyone who’d ever watched television across the Midwest over the previous 20 years. Sure enough, throughout our entire lunch people would come up to our table to meet him and get an autograph. That’s when – happy as can be at their request – he’d pop open his briefcase packed full of headshots, ready for personalization to his many fans. He loved it, and so did we.

Ray Szmanda on set at a Menards commercial shoot for Gorilla Rack Shelving, circa 2001. Volume One owner/publisher Nick Meyer is the guy in the gorilla suit – it was his job to jump into the frame, hop up and down, and pound his chest. Ray had plenty of monkey jokes for the crew.
Ray Szmanda on set at a Menards commercial shoot for Gorilla Rack Shelving, circa 2001. Volume One owner/publisher Nick Meyer is the guy in the gorilla suit – it was his job to jump into the frame, hop up and down, and pound his chest. Ray had plenty of monkey jokes for the crew.

To celebrate this Midwestern cultural icon, we’ve gathered up some photos, videos, and tidbits here to share (see below), including a great interview Volume One had with him roughly nine years ago. He truly was a kind and generous man. Please, comment below with your stories and memories too.

I will fondly remember Ray, and I know so many who had a chance to work with him will too, not to mention the millions who saw him grinning on TV, paintbrush in hand.

Thanks, Ray.

– Nick Meyer, Volume One

Read Volume One’s interview with Ray Szmanda from 2009

Back in 2009, Volume One published a long Q&A between Ray Szmanda and former managing editor Trevor Kupfer. They covered a lot of fascinating ground, including his other gigs, how he got the Menards job, and funny things that happened while filming commercials.

READ: An interview with Ray Szmanda (a.k.a. “The Menards Guy”

Volume One: I also heard that you’re a drummer, as well. Is that right?

Ray Szmanda: Yes. I was a professional drummer. I played on the road. This is when I was young. Right when I got out of the Navy at 21. I had my own trio. We played 40s music, what we called swing. Swing lasted about 10 years, and then of course rock ‘n roll came in.

The Found Footage Festival Loves Ray

The Found Footage Festival – a local favorite – puts together touring comedy shows based on old VHS video footage from just about anywhere, from corporate training videos to infomercials. And The Menards Guy is no exception. Check out one of their favorite clips.

From the Chicago Tribune, May 12, 1997

On May 12, 1997, the Chicago Tribune ran a great article on The Menards Guy. This was while Szmanda was still working for the company in full force.

READ: Menards Guy Isn't Who--or What--you Think He Is

The Menards Guy is the chain's only spokesman and has been for 20 years. But for some reason--he says he has no idea why--in the past two years or so he's become a bit of a cult figure, a pop icon to whom viewers write fan letters and request autographed photos.

The mail comes to the chain's Eau Claire, Wis., headquarters addressed to "The Menards Guy," or, more formally, "The Menards Man." In his hometown of Antigo, Wis.--population 8,500--postal workers and others call his wife "Mrs. Menard."

Ray’s Iconic Headshot

Ray was known to carry around a briefcase full of head shots because so many people would ask for his autograph. Volume One scored one.

The Alpha Incident

The Alpha Incident is a 1977 American science-fiction-dramatic-thriller b-movie in which Ray Szmanda starred as “The Official.” Check out a compilation of Ray’s scenes.

Bloopers, a Parody, and a Trippy Tribute

Check out a short series of bloopers with Ray Szmanda as he shot commercials for Menards here in Eau Claire.

Svengoolie is a hosted horror movie show. The show's title is taken from the name of the character host. It's a long-running local program in the Chicago area and in recent years it's expanded nationally, airing Saturday nights on MeTV. Watch one of the old show’s parody commercials.

Enjoy a trippy tribute to The Menards Guy called "THE MENARDS MAN REMIX."

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Friday, May. 4th, 2018

Double-Digit Growth Has Made Eau Claire a Top 10 Tourist County

For the first time ever, Eau Claire has cracked the top 10 among Wisconsin counties in tourist spending, with double-digit growth in the volume of dollars pumped into the local economy by visitors in 2017.

Direct spending by visitors to Eau Claire County grew 12.5 percent to $257 million last year, placing the county at No. 10 statewide, according to figures released Friday by the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. That growth rate was the third-best in the state, behind only Florence and Kewaunee among Wisconsin’s 72 counties. Statewide, direct visitor spending grew a bit over 3 percent to $12.7 billion.

Tourism spending supported an estimated 4,578 full-time equivalent jobs in Eau Claire County last year, generating $107 million in salaries and $32 million in state and local taxes.

“What these numbers are showing us is that the growth we’ve seen in our downtown, our creative economy, as well as our efforts to bring large meetings and sporting events to the area, is having both a local and a statewide impact,” said Linda John, executive director at Visit Eau Claire, the region’s tourism promotion agency. “Last year’s numbers show that we are doing the right things to make our community a destination worth traveling to and I say we keep that momentum going.”

Overall, total tourism-related business sales in Eau Claire County rose 9 percent to $404 million last year.

Tourists also provided healthy infusions to the economies of Chippewa and Dunn counties. Direct visitor spending rose a robust 10.6 percent to $98.4 million in Chippewa County. Jackie Boos, tourism director for Go Chippewa Falls and Chippewa County, credited the growth to a new marketing campaign, area music festivals, last year’s 150th anniversary celebration by Leinenkugel’s, a big lineup of performers at the Northern Wisconsin State Fair, and numerous year-round attractions.

Meanwhile, direct spending by visitors in Dunn County rose about 1 percent to $45.8 million.

In a press release, Gov. Scott Walker declared that Wisconsin’s travel and hospitality industry was “booming.” Here are some key takeaways*:

• The total seven-year growth of tourism activity in the state is $5.8 billion, a nearly 40 percent increase according to Tourism Economics, the research firm for the Department of Tourism.

• Visitor volumes topped 110 million visits, an increase of 17.5 million, compared to 92.5 million seven years ago. This is a 19 percent increase since 2011.

• Traveler spending on recreation, which includes all activities travelers choose to do on vacation, had the fastest growth at 5.5 percent in 2017.

• Tourism directly and indirectly supported 195,255 jobs in Wisconsin’s labor market in 2016.

• The growth of tourism over the last seven years has helped add 23,255 jobs, a 13.5 percent increase.

• Visitors generated $1.5 billion in state and local revenue and $1.2 billion in federal taxes, saving Wisconsin taxpayers $660 per household.

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Thursday, May. 3rd, 2018

Midwest Living Features Eau Claire, Focuses on Music

It's always nice to be noticed. Midwest Living published this quick overview of the city’s developments after the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival rose to fame, as well as its merits as a vacation destination.

The piece discusses Justin Vernon’s part in putting Eau Claire on the map (as many of these travel articles do) after his 2012 Grammy win for Best New Artist, the Eaux Claires IV no-line-up line-up, and the evolving identity of what was once a lumber town.

“Standing on the roof of Ramone’s, Blayne Midthun points to all the life around his new ice cream shop: street sculptures, chefs opening trendy restaurants, two boutique hotels. And a $60 million performing arts center opens this fall. Beside it, Phoenix Park replaced a brownfield site with green space, water access, paths and an amphitheater at the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers. ‘This all used to be an industrial dump,’ Blayne says. ‘Come down here five years ago, and there would be nothing going on.’” – Midwest Living, May 2018

Writer Timothy Meinch characterizes the Oxbow Hotel as a “woodsy romantic,” and the Lismore as the “chic urbanite.”  For fun times between music festivals, the Eau Claire Downtown Sculpture Tour is recommended, as well as a jaunt out to Chippewa Falls for a Leinie’s tour, enjoying a ride on the Chippewa Valley’s extensive bike trail system, or going for a paddle on our multitude of waterways and lakes.

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Economic Development Week Salutes Local Job-Creators

It’s time to tip our collective hats (and maybe tip back a pint or two) to all those who help our job creators in celebration of the Third Annual Economic Development Week, which runs May 7-12. In Eau Claire, the week will be marked with business lunches, mixers, educational sessions, and even an official proclamation.

So what’s Economic Development Week? It was created a few years back to the International Economic Development Council to “increase awareness for local programs that create jobs, advance career development opportunities and increase the quality of life.” Economic development is the often behind-the-scenes work at the intersection of the public and private sectors that keeps the economy humming. According to a press release, the City of Eau Claire is marking Economic Development Week “to celebrate the profession and the professionals that work hard to create opportunities for all citizens and their communities.”

The week will begin with an official proclamation issued by Eau Claire City Council President Kerry Kincaid at the council’s meeting on Tuesday, May 8. Other events are as follows:

Wednesday, May 9

• 1 Million Cups – Eau Claire | 9-10am at the Chippewa Valley Technical College, 620 W Clairemont Ave., Eau Claire

• Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce Sixth Annual Working Mothers Luncheon | noon-1:30pm at the River Prairie Center, 1445 Front Porch Place, Altoona

• Musky Tank Mixer – Betting on the Right Jockey! | 6:30-8pm at Modicum Brewing Co., 3732 Spooner Ave., Altoona

Thursday, May 10

• Business Loans in Greater Eau Claire hosted by the City of Eau Claire | noon-1pm at The French Press, 2823 London Road, Eau Claire This event features presentations from the Western Dairyland Revolving Loan Fund, Regional Business Fund, and the City of Eau Claire Loan Programs.

• Chippewa Valley Job Fair | noon-12:30pm (veterans only), 12:30-4pm (general public) at Eau Claire Indoor Sports Center, 3456 Craig Road, Eau Claire

• Business Plan Basics | 6-9pm at Western Dairyland Business Center, 418 Wisconsin St., Eau Claire

Saturday, May 12

• Creative Economy Week Eau Claire is celebrating Creative Economy Week May 12-19. As a key strategy of economic development in the Eau Claire area, check out all events beginning May 12 to celebrate the Creative Economy.

To learn more about the City of Eau Claire’s economic development efforts throughout the week (or anytime), check out @ECEconomicDevelopment on Facebook or visit

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Tuesday, May. 1st, 2018

Eau Claire Police Department Wins National Social Media Honors

Image: ECPD
Image: ECPD

What city has the government agency with the coolest social media presence?  That’d be New York City.  But coming in second in the Government Social Media Golden Post Awards Outstanding Social Media competition was none other than the Eau Claire Police Department. How so and what for? They won for posts like this ...

When Officer Kyle Roder received a scam phone message claiming he would be arrested by local officers for a tax violation if he did not return the call, he decided to con the con artist. Watch the video below to hear Roder’s award-winning conversation with an IRS agent impersonator.  It’s hijinks like these that make the ECPD’s social media pages a multi-award-winning Chippewa Valley favorite.

“It is always great to be recognized nationally and internationally because it shows that what we are doing locally is working,” Roder said.  But it’s not all about the glory, he said. “Social media is all about results, not awards. Just like our officers on patrol, we deliver a professional, sincere service to our community and the results and recognition follow.”

The Government Social Media Awards are given at an annual conference hosted by the Government Social Media Organization, an advisory institute that provides networking and educational opportunities to government agencies that practice social media outreach.  This year’s convention was held in Denver, Colorado.

After the phone call in the video ended, ECPD was unable to reach the scammers again to follow up. “Although I was never able to reveal my identity, with 14 million YouTube views there's a good chance 'James Maxwell Johnson' saw the video," Roder said with a smiley emoticon.

We assume these honors are almost as important to the ECPD as their big 2nd place social media win in Volume One's 2018 Best of the Chippewa Valley Reader Poll. Find them on Facebook.

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Wednesday, Apr. 25th, 2018

Eau Claire People and Businesses Featured in Statewide Video Project

For Midwesterners looking for a place to live that offers a rich, fulfilling life both on and off the clock, Eau Claire’s siren song seems to grow stronger every day. A number of recent videos produced by In Wisconsin – for their “Wisconsin Stories” series – focus on the city as a place with thriving local businesses, culture, and community.

In Wisconsin is a partnership between the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and Wisconsin businesses and community leaders. The goal is to highlight the restless drive Wisconsinites exhibit to invent, create, and achieve what makes the state a great place to live, work, and play.

The In Wisconsin website features statistics, photos, videos, and more, offering up resources for finding housing, jobs, and fun things to do in the state of Wisconsin. Check it out to see pieces on Eau Claire, including Ambient Inks (above), Ramone’s Ice Cream, Eau Claire Downtown Coffee, and local nonprofit leader Wesley Escondo (below) sprinkled throughout. You can also find them on YouTube and Facebook.

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Thursday, Apr. 19th, 2018

Eaux Claires 2018, Artist-Led Festivals, and the No-Lineup Lineup

Eaux Claires 2017
Eaux Claires 2017

At this point, it’s been well established that the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival is doing stuff differently for its fourth annual installment on July 6 and 7. Most significantly, curators Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner are intentionally not releasing a lineup of music acts. At least not in the traditional sense.

If you’ve listened to the slew of audio clips the festival released over the winter with your Shazam app open or followed Vernon’s subtle-not-so-subtle nods on Twitter, you can probably piece the slate together for the most part. Those bread crumbs lead to names like Noname, Phoebe Bridgers, serpentwithfeet, Julien Baker, Moses Sumney, Hiss Golden Messenger (plus, it wouldn’t be Eaux Claires without the likes of Francis and the Lights and Phil Cook).

But that’s really not the point.

The idea is to subvert the norm of bloated music festivals that have heavily proliferated the country as they become trendier and trendier. The Coachellas and Lollapaloozas of the world are doing their thing and raking in cash, but Vernon and Dessner feel like they have an opportunity with Eaux Claires to create a weekend haven that’s less about a bottom line and more about a collective experience.

Attendees willing to fork over their trust are going in blind, which will be an artistic boon, but how it shakes out financially is anyone’s guess. Either way, changing the conversation and the money-heavy mindset of major music festivals is worth the risk for Eaux Claires, Vernon says – the festival is prominently featured in a Pitchfork story today that discusses how artist-led music festivals like Eaux Claires are changing the game around the country for the better, but it’s not easy.

Here’s a few salient quotes from the piece:

That longevity is the crux. In the first year of Eaux Claires, when Bon Iver returned to the stage after a three-year hiatus, the festival was instantly profitable. Then Eaux Claires lost money for the next two years, Vernon admits, requiring organizers to make some changes. But the bottom line is not the primary focus.

“You can’t just sign up for profit every time,” says Vernon. “But we’re not blindly throwing money down the toilet—we’re adjusting to a more sustainable model.” He compares the festival’s balance sheets to the decades he spent toiling in groups that never made much money, long before he found fame with Bon Iver. “You have to be committed,” he adds. “This is a 20-year thing.”

“There is something artist-driven happening with festivals, even if I don’t think it’s clear where we’re going with it yet,” says Adam Voith, a longtime booking agent for the likes of Bon Iver and Vampire Weekend. “Artists are much more excited about these events than standard festivals now, because there’s a recognition that it’s music-forward and collaborative from the jump.” Voith pauses, then sighs. “But it’s going to take a lot of smart people to figure out how to make these viable long-term.”

With Eaux Claires keeping this year’s lineup a secret until the festival begins, they’re betting they don’t even need a traditional promotional poster at all. For Vernon, his team, and, it seems, most every artist risking their own time and money to build such an idealistic event, the risk seems to be a test worth taking. The broad goal is to push back against entrenched festival rules and change the tone of a conversation in which, sooner or later, they all participate. These bands still play major festivals with corporate boosters, after all, because those outsized paydays help fund everything else they do. But that doesn’t have to be the only option.

“Why does it have to be about maximizing profits every time there’s a question about everything? That bugs me,” says Vernon. “We’re not trying to be the biggest festival in the world. We’re just trying to be the best we can be.”

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Tuesday, Apr. 17th, 2018

Eau Claire: One of the "Best Budget Destinations in America"

Check out this slideshow of Eau Claire action shots from, which included Eau Claire in its list of Best Budget Destinations in America 2018, Part II: The Midwest.

They say, "We’re rounding up value trips across the U.S. (one in each state, plus DC) to inspire Budget Travelers to see more of America for less money. Here, the best of the Midwest."

Of Eau Claire, they say, "In 2014, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary included “Brooklyn” as an adjective. Eau Claire, Wisconsin, is very Brooklyn. Often referred to as the “Indie Capital of the Midwest,” the college town with a decidedly collaborative spirit has become known as an incubator for emerging musicians. They’re even one of the many homegrown attractions at the weekly downtown farmers’ market ..." Read more.

Thumbnail image: Visit Eau Claire

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