Wednesday, Apr. 19th, 2017

Big Arts Merger: By 2018 the Confluence Council Will Absorb ECRAC

The Strate Theater – home of the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center.
The State Theatre – home of the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center.

The skyline of downtown Eau Claire isn’t the only thing changing thanks to the ongoing construction of the Confluence Arts Center. On Wednesday, the Confluence Council, the entity that will operate the performing arts center when it opens in the fall of 2018, announced that it plans to merge with the Eau Claire Regional Arts Council, which currently operates the State Theatre, the arts venue that the Confluence Center will replace.

The boards of directors of both organizations have signed a letter of intent to conduct the merger, which will be completed by the time the arts center opens. Representatives of both groups said merger discussions have been ongoing for several years and began not long after the Confluence Council was formed in 2014. (The Confluence Project, a shared university-community arts center project with an associated privately built mixed-use building, was first announced in 2012.)

“We have 30 years of experience and institutional knowledge to bring to the Confluence,” says Pam Rasmussen, president of the ECRAC board of directors. “Our relationships with donors and ticket buyers will go a long way to ensure that the Confluence Arts Center can be successful from day one.”

ECRAC was formed in 1983, and the following year was given the now 91-year-old State Theatre. While it has operated the theater since that time, ECRAC has also been intimately involved in the Confluence Project, and ECRAC’s executive director, Ben Richgruber, serves on the Confluence Council board of directors. That board is also composed of representatives of the city, Visit Eau Claire, UW-Eau Claire, arts groups, and the project’s developer, as well as several at-large members.

While the merger won’t be finalized until next year, the two entities are already working together. Since January, ECRAC has given 10 percent of its membership dues to the Confluence Council. In addition, some of the proceeds from ECRAC’s annual Jubilee fundraiser will go to the Confluence Council.

“ECRAC has been doing this work for a long time, and it only makes sense to bring both organizations together as we move forward and work to grow the arts community,” said Vicki Hoehn, president of the Confluence Council board of directors.

In the meantime, the Confluence Council is looking for an executive director to run the new arts center. Hoehn said a decision on hiring that person will likely occur by June.

After the merger, ECRAC will essentially cease to exist. In addition to operating the new arts center, the Confluence Council is expected to take over ECRAC’s role in programs such as the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild, the Chippewa Valley Book Festival, the ArtMobile, and more.

One thing the Confluence Council won’t take over, however, is the State Theatre itself. The Confluence Council doesn’t want to own the Vaudeville-era theater, and ECRAC hopes to sell the facility by the time the new arts center opens.

“We’ve had a couple of people express some interest in it,” Rasmussen said. “Our goal is to find some complementary use of the State Theatre with the Confluence that continues to enhance the arts.”

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Woo's Pagoda Needs Help ... SOON

Pagoda removal, 2014.
Pagoda removal, 2014.

It looks like the fabled 18-foot tall pagoda which used to adorn the now gone Woo's Pagoda restaurant on Hastings Way in Eau Claire needs a new storage facility by May 15 or efforts to restore it will cease. Back in 2014, before the restaurant was torn down, the Chippewa Valley Museum was able to remove the iconic structure and place it on the grounds of Banbury Place – outdoors and in the elements. Unless indoor storage can be located soon, restoration will become too expensive due to deterioration.

Here's the full press release from the Chippewa Valley Museum ...

Storage Needed for Woo's Pagoda

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. – Efforts to restore the full pagoda structure from the former Woo’s Pagoda Restaurant will cease unless storage is found for the 18-foot structure by May 15.

Community members and businesses came together in May 2014 to remove the pagoda from the former Woo’s Pagoda Restaurant which was demolished for new construction. The Chippewa Valley Museum took responsibility of the pagoda so that plans could be made to restore and display the structure in a public location. The 18-foot structure was placed on the grounds of Banbury Place because it could not fit inside the Chippewa Valley Museum.

The wooden pagoda, built over a steel frame, was constructed in 1959 on top of what was then Jimmy Woo’s Restaurant. It was in fair to poor condition when it was removed from its original location in 2014. The Chippewa Valley Museum has been unable to locate an affordable indoor facility that can store the structure and its condition has continued to deteriorate. Local business Live In Eau Claire is able to take on the restoration project, but only if indoor storage is available. Without indoor storage, it is too expensive to restore the pagoda in its current location.

The Chippewa Valley Museum and Live In Eau Claire request community help to locate an indoor facility for the pagoda where it can be repaired. The facility needs to be located by May 15. After that date, the main pagoda structure will be dismantled and removed from Banbury Place. Efforts will shift to preserving the smaller top section of the pagoda which has been detached from the main structure.

For more information, contact Carrie Ronnander at 715-834-7871 or c.ronnander@cvmuseum.com

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Tuesday, Apr. 18th, 2017

Eau Claire Guitar Works: Woodworkers collab on gorgeous specialty guitars

WOOD YOU PLAY IT? Acclaimed local guitar maker Gordy Bischoff has teamed up with Tim Brudnicki – a woodworker specializing in reclaimed urban lumber – to form Eau Claire Guitar Works.

A hundred years ago, the word local was presupposed in the way the world worked. Of course the beef was local. Of course that soap was locally made. By so many measurements the world was a smaller place. Now, after decades of trying to remember or relearn the ways in which local artisans and economies thrived, one of the most sincere paths to creative entrepreneurship may be as simple as friendship and collaboration. Talking to each other. Or maybe playing music.

“... (I need) wood that is stable, dense enough to be resonant. Even though these are solid body guitars, they need to be dense enough to transmit the energy of the strings, rather than soak it up.” – Gordy Bischoff, on using local ash wood

Case in point: the burgeoning Eau Claire Guitar Works. On an early April morning south of Eau Claire, Tim Brudnicki and Gordy Bischoff are seated in Brudnicki’s office just off the large workshop of his growingly ubiquitous Eau Claire Woodworks (recall the beautiful furniture and fine touches of the Oxbow Hotel and Lakely Restaurant, Fit Elite, Ambient Inks, and the Altoona Event Center). The two men are sipping strong coffee and the shorter, mustachioed Bischoff is maintaining a steady soliloquy of ideas quite apart from the easy silence that envelops Brudnicki, whose 6’4” frame leans back casually in his chair, like a taciturn school principal. The two men are a study of contrasts, but both successful artisans who met not all that long ago through the growing network of Eau Claire musicians and music-lovers. In this case, they may have also been pushed together by a neighborhood of doomed trees.

Two or three years ago, Dan Rouse, owner of three Bischoff instruments, came to him with the notion of using native ash trees (harvested off Rouse’s southside property) for a guitar.  The City of Eau Claire was cutting all the ash trees in Rouse’s neighborhood, and he just couldn’t stand to see all that wood go to waste. “I said to Gordy, ‘Fender Stratocaster and Fender Telecasters are made of southern swamp ash, and this Wisconsin white, green, and black ash is far superior, denser, nicer wood.’ ” Rouse had already separately talked to Brudnicki about potentially using the wood for custom furniture, but it was the guitar-making that intrigued all involved.

“Ash is a wood that has been historically used for solid-body guitars,” says Brudnicki. But unlike rosewood or mahogany, ash is local, and for better or worse, readily available due to the spread of the emerald ash borer, a beetle devastating the American ash population.  Bischoff puts in, “…(I need) wood that is stable, dense enough to be resonant. Even though these are solid body guitars, they need to be dense enough to transmit the energy of the strings, rather than soak it up.” He pauses a moment before continuing, “What is stable and good for a cabinet is good for a guitar, too.” Brudnicki nods quietly in agreement. But between an Eau Claire city forester cutting a tree down and a customer carrying a velvet-lined case heavy with a new guitar, lay significant challenges: transportation of the wood, the milling, the drying, and the precision cutting of the body of the guitar. Years of time and investment.

The first finished guitar (a beautiful prototype serial numbered TEL-000) will be unveiled on April 21, as part of an Eau Claire Regional Arts Center fundraiser for the Confluence Project in which tickets will be raffled off for $10 apiece. The guitar will be on display each week for the next several months at the Sounds Like Summer concert series, and also at the Eau Claire Woodworks and Visit Eau Claire booths this June at the Eaux Claires Music Festival. Dan Rouse will be Eau Claire Guitar Works’ first true customer when he purchases a guitar poetically made with ash off his own property. The guitars will cost approximately $2,000, and both Brudnicki and Bischoff are eager to begin taking orders (contact information for Eau Claire Guitar Works can be found on Facebook). Bischoff will work with each customer intimately installing only high-quality hardware and pickups.

Brudnicki says of this project, “My work is what I have to offer to this community. Everybody has something to give. And it’s a cool thing to make another artist better, to help them.” As an example, he mentions working on local music producer Evan Middlesworth’s studio control desk. Bischoff interjects, “One of the coolest things that happens to me is listening to a customer of mine play on one of my instruments.” Tim relates a story of watching Gordy beam with pride as Willy Porter played one of his guitars. 

Eau Claire Guitar Works is a world-class collaboration between two renowned local artists, recycling high-quality local resources. With Brudnicki’s patient attention to form and quality, and Bischoff’s electric intensity and wealth of musical wisdom, each instrument is endowed with decades of human knowledge, channeled into a piece of wood that may have taken dozens and dozens of seasons to grow and flourish in the Chippewa Valley before its untimely end. So much of this collaboration is about timing: how humans find each other, how they befriend each other, which path they choose to walk in this life, when they choose to speak up, what they choose to save, and how.

The good news is that sometimes, we find each other, find common ground, local ground, find the music in something as unsuspecting as a dying tree.

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Friday, Apr. 7th, 2017

Spotted in Eau Claire: Community Care Cabinet

Nice work, Eau Claire. Check out this thoughtful little "Community Care Cabinet" set up right outside Smiling Moose Deli across from the Downtown Eau Claire Farmers Market in Phoenix Park. A note on the door reads …

Community Care Cabinet

Take What You Need
Leave What You Don't
Share What You Can

Please do not leave perishable or hazardous items.

This box is for anyone in need and supported by those who can help.

Please contact MELL6355@hotmail.com with any questions or concerns.

UPDATED: We spotted another Community Care Cabinet on Bridge Street in downtown Chippewa Falls. 


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Wednesday, Apr. 5th, 2017

Eau Claire's Citywide Spring Cleaning Needs Your Help

The City of Eau Claire is looking for help to make the town spick-and-span now that spring is finally here. The annual Amazing Eau Claire Clean-Up is planned for Saturday, April 22 – that’s Earth Day, by the way – and it will be a big, community-wide effort. “This event sends volunteers to locations throughout the city including community parks, neighborhood playgrounds, picnic areas, and recreational trails,” a city press release says. These areas will be cleaned (goodbye, winter litter) and, if needed, flowerbeds will be prepped for planting (hello, spring bulbs). The event begins at 9am, with different groups assigned to sites around the city, and work will wrap up by 11am. Volunteers will then be invited to Boyd Park for snacks, games, and prizes until noon. If you’re interested in volunteering, the application deadline is Friday, April 14. To learn more or to sign up, contact Marybeth Berry at (715) 839-5039 or Marybeth.Berry@ci.eau-claire.wi.us.

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Monday, Apr. 3rd, 2017

Eau Claire City Council Gives Backing to Private Passenger Train Effort

BACK TO THE FUTURE. This vintage postcard shows the Twin Cities 400, the last passenger train line to serve Eau Claire, which ended in 1963. Advocates hope to revive passenger rail in the region in the near future. Image: Chippewa Valley Museum
BACK TO THE FUTURE. This vintage postcard shows the Twin Cities 400, the last passenger train line to serve Eau Claire, which ended in 1963. Advocates hope to revive passenger rail in the region in the near future. Image: Chippewa Valley Museum

The Eau Claire City Council has heeded the “all aboard” call for an effort to explore the creation of a passenger rail line between the Chippewa Valley and the Twin Cities.

The council voted unanimously March 28 in support of a resolution backing the project, which has been created by a group of passenger rail boosters, known as the West Central Wisconsin Passenger Rail Organizing Council, which includes local businesses and the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition. The vote commits no public funding to the plan, which is still in its early stages. In fact, local rail advocates hope that the passenger venture can hit the rails with private funds alone or as a public-private partnership.

“Whenever you talk about (passenger rail) there’s always a tremendous response from people who say, ‘I would use that.’” – Scott Rogers, president of the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition

“Whenever you talk about (passenger rail) there’s always a tremendous response from people who say, ‘I would use that,’ ” Scott Rogers, president of the rail coalition, told the City Council during a March 27 hearing. Major Eau Claire employers such as Royal Credit Union and Jamf Software – both of which are involved with the Organizing Council – know that attracting and keeping talented employees depends in part on offering them transportation alternatives, Rogers said. Both millennials (some of whom eschew cars) and baby boomers (who are now looking for car-free modes of transit) are interested in traveling by rail, he added, noting that passenger rail ridership nationwide is the highest it’s been in 50 years. Coincidentally, it was roughly half a century ago – 1963, to be precise – that passenger rail last served Eau Claire in the form of the Twin Cities 400, a Chicago and North Western Railway route between St. Paul and Chicago.

The proposed new passenger service – which would travel between a to-be-built station in Eau Claire to St. Paul’s Union Depot – would reproduce at least part of this route. And while the project isn’t in need of public dollars – at least not yet – it does need public backing. According to the resolution, “consolidated support for this project is a prerequisite to the successful construction, start-up, and ongoing operation of this transportation service.” The Eau Claire and Chippewa county boards had previously approved similar resolutions, and Rogers expects more local governments to follow suit.

According to a background document provided to the City Council, the local rail plan calls for four round-trips a day between Eau Claire and St. Paul, with a travel time of 1.5 hours. An estimated 900,000 trips could be made annually using the service, supporters say.

The train would follow existing Union Pacific tracks and would be managed by a private operator, said Dave Christianson, a retired rail planner for the Minnesota Department of Transportation who now serves as executive director of the Organizing Council. He said an average one-way, non-discounted coach fair on the route would cost about $32. The train would make stops in Menomonie, Baldwin, Hudson, and Stillwater, Minnesota, before arriving in St. Paul. (Extending the service to Minneapolis would be a priority, as would eventually linking to Chicago.)

Following a conservative timeframe, if financial support is available, the line could be operating within three or four years, Christianson told the City Council. Under a best-case scenario it could be running closer to 18 months from when the decision to move forward is made, Christianson said.

Rogers, of the rail coalition, added that the privately funded projects in other parts of the nation – such as Brightline in Florida and Texas Central in Texas – serve as inspirations. So do public-private venture, including Uptown Station in Normal, Illinois. “There’s a lot to learn, but we’re seeing these other innovations around the country,” Rogers said.

Councilman Dave Strobel said he was encouraged by the proposal and fully supports it. “Every time I drive to the (Twin) Cities and get hung up between two semis on two lanes of traffic, I’m looking for a third lane,” Strobel said. “This might lighten the load on the interstate.” In addition to easing highway congestion, Strobel said that riding the rails may save travelers money: He noted that he recently paid $190 to keep his vehicle at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport for a week, far more than the estimated $32 cost of a one-way ticket on the proposed rail line.

Rogers said the rail advocates’ new step is to reach an agreement with Union Pacific to study the existing track to make sure it could handle the proposed passenger service. Results are expected in the fall, and they will be helpful in determining an overall price tag for the project, he added.

The next monthly meeting of the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition will be at 6pm Wednesday, April 26, at Chippewa Valley Technical College, 620 W. Clairemont Ave., Eau Claire. It will feature a presentation by Corridor Capital, a passenger rail development company that is interested in the project.

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Settling for Eagles: In life, when is ‘good enough’ really ‘good enough’?

Bald eagles soar near Wabasha, Minnesota.
Bald eagles soar near Wabasha, Minnesota.

Armed with sandwiches, binoculars, and a couple of cameras, the three of us hit the road. It’s spring break, and to celebrate, a pair of buddies and I hop in a truck and head west – ignoring the allure of Floridian beaches and opting for a lesser-known spring break destination: Wabasha, Minnesota.

We are in search of eagles, and having received a hot tip that they congregate along the Mississippi River this time of year, that’s exactly where we went. From my place in the backseat, I hold my pen at the ready, anxious for the bird count to begin.

Though for the first hour there’s nothing to count: the skies eerily empty. But just as boredom begins to set in, we see them: “Eagles!”

Three, in fact, each of which I soon reduce to a tally in my book.

“Should we pull over?” my buddy in the driver’s seat asks.

“Sure,” I say.

I base this decision off an apt expression I’d often heard before: that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. (Or in our case, three birds in a tree are better than nothing.) However, my friend in the driver’s seat feels differently, ignoring my “sure” and promising we’ll likely see plenty more ahead.

It’s a gamble I’m less inclined to take. After all, it’s possible we’ll spot more eagles, but it’s hardly a guarantee.

Me being me, I can’t help but transform our eagle outing into a full-blown existential crisis.

What does it say about me that I’m so quick to settle? I wonder. And what does it say about my buddy that he isn’t?

I wasn’t always this way. In youth, life’s excitement often came by way of not knowing what proverbial bird might be perched right around the bend. Though as I teeter toward middle age, it’s the “not-knowing” that’s cause for concern. Maybe the grass is greener on the other side, but maybe, too, that grass is full of landmines.

Just to be sure my existential crisis can reach its full crescendo, upon hearing an old favorite come on the radio, my buddy in the passenger seat comments, “Wow, can you believe this song’s 25 years old?”

No, I sigh. I cannot.

Upon entering Wabasha’s city limits, we head north along the Mississippi, stopping at every pull-off to spot eagles in the trees. Soon my tally is well over 100 – mostly bald eagles, but a handful of goldens, too. On the shores of Lake Pepin, my humbling continues. In one spot alone we more than double our eagle count; such an abundance of birds that our camera shutters can barely keep up. As we watch them dive bomb toward the water’s surface – always alighting with a fish – it’s hard to know what to make of them. There are simply so many, too many, their surplus ensuring that I can’t fully appreciate any single one. I quit my tally somewhere around 200.

The universe had made its point.

* * *

Half a lifetime ago, when I was 16, I worked at a pet store where, for reasons beyond my understanding, I was put in charge of thousands of dollars’ worth of exotic birds. I was responsible for the cockatoo, the macaw, as well as any other feathered friend equipped with a beak capable of breaking a broomstick. Which, admittedly, was an image I thought about often while tiptoeing into their cage after closing, placing the young birds in my hands and handfeeding them with a syringe.

After several months of intense bird bonding, I was hired at a bookstore down the road. It was a dream job, one that not only ensured that I’d retain all my fingers, but also placed me, a budding writer, in close proximity with every visiting author. As I stepped into the manager’s office to inform her that I’d be leaving – that though I loved the birds, I loved books more – she spun around in her swivel chair and looked me straight in the eye.

“If you like it here,” she asked, dumbfounded, “then why would you leave?”

“Well, it’s good enough,” I squirmed, “but…”

“One day,” she chided, “you’ll learn that ‘good enough’ is ‘good enough.’ ” Then, before I could rebut, she spun back around, returning her attention to her screen.

Two weeks later, I said goodbye to my birds and took my chances on books.

But a week into my new gig, I couldn’t help but return to the old one, anxious to visit a few of my feathered friends.

“Well,” I asked a fellow employee, “how are the birds holding up?”

The birds were fine, the employee informed me, but our manager wasn’t. She’d died of an aneurism days prior.

From their place in the cage those birds stared at me, trying hard to read my expression. Head cocked, the macaw offered me a conciliatory coo, and all I offered him was a goodbye.

I walked out of that pet store knowing that “good enough” would never be “good enough” again.

Some days, I forget that. But when I do, the birds remind me.

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Thursday, Mar. 30th, 2017
Monday, Mar. 27th, 2017

Action City Set to Add Motorized Zip-line and New Outdoor Road Course

Motorized zip-line installation at Action City, Eau Claire.
Motorized zip-line installation at Action City, Eau Claire. Image: Action City

Hot on the heels of its newly opened trampoline park, Eau Claire's Action City will also be adding a 700 foot long motorized zip-line – which can send 2 people flying through the air at 35 miles per hour from a height of 130 feet – and a large outdoor road course with new go-karts. We announced the new attractions back in May 2016, and now Action City has started construction,with the hopes of opening in just a few months, in May 2017.

Check out Action City's press release ...

NEW Outdoor Attractions coming to Action City at Metropolis Resort Includes Motorized Zip-line & Outdoor Road Course with New Go-Karts

Eau Claire, WI (March 27th, 2017) – Shirley and Tom Hahn, the owners of Action City, a 90,000 square foot family fun center & trampoline park located at Metropolis Resort, announced that they have begun construction on two new outdoor attractions.

The outdoor expansion will include a much larger go-kart track. This road course will replace the current bandit cart oval track and will feature brand new go-karts from JJ Amusements. High above the new track and the mini golf course will be a 700 foot long motorized zip-line created by Soaring Eagle. This new ride will seat 2 people and will take them up to a height of 130 feet and speeds up to 35 miles per hour. Action City’s new outdoor expansion will open in early May of 2017 with an exact open date to be announced soon.

Action City’s outdoor mini golf course and pavilion will remain open for most of the installation process for the new outdoor attractions.

Follow Action City on Facebook and Instagram to see more behind the scenes sneak peeks of their new attractions coming in May 2017. Thank you for your continued support of Action City and Metropolis Resort. Your patronage helps us continue to truly be the place,”Where the Fun Never Stops”.

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Friday, Mar. 24th, 2017

Minnesotans Are Loving Eau Claire for Weekend Getaways

More and more, Eau Claire is listed and profiled by publications in Minnesota as a great place for a weekend getaway or a day trip. Just last month, Minnesota Public Radio featured a number of local eateries and bars in a segment on destination dining. And now Eau Claire has a two-page spread in the April issue of Minnesota Monthly, which covers arts, food, style, living, and travel in and around our neighboring state. The whole issue is devoted to weekend vacations.

The spread is part of a feature story on three small cities that are high on stuff to do and see, yet low on travel time. It’s co-written by the magazine’s editor-in-chief Rachel Hutton, and also features Minnesota burgs Northfield and Mankato. They say these places “offer scenic beauty, vibrant culture, and some surprising new spots to shop, eat, drink, and spend the night.”

They, of course, talk about places like The Joynt and people like Justin Vernon and things like the Eaux Claires festival and UW-Eau Claire’s jazz program. But they also dig deeper into the downtown area, highlighting some great spots for interested travelers. Some takeaways ...

On The Lismore ... “The building, now clad in anodized metal and glass, includes an artisanal coffee shop, a farm-to-table restaurant serving bone marrow and bison, and the city’s only rooftop bar. (It’s called Dive because it replaced the former hotel’s swimming pool—an actual dive bar would never flame its Old Fashioneds’ orange peels.)”

On Red’s ... “The most contemporary shop in town is the spare, boho Red’s Mercantile, which sells chic removable wallpaper, Faribault blankets, sage bundles for smudging, beeswax candles, minimalist jewelry, and more.”

On Good & Sturdy ... “For vintage-lovers, Good & Sturdy offers a nicely curated collection of well-preserved jeans, leather jackets, t-shirts, and other clothing."

On The Lakely & The Oxbow Hotel ... “serves gourmet dishes rooted in the Midwest, including a fantastic “hot dish” of braised duck and native-harvested wild rice. The craft cocktails are also first-rate—I loved the Sugarbush Sour with bourbon, lemon, and maple syrup—spendier than the Joynt, but a steal compared to their Twin Cities equivalent. The overall atmosphere is classy yet relaxed, and the dress code ranges from sequins to UW-Badger fleece.” 

On the Antique Emporium ... “The largest retailer is the decades-old, three-level Antique Emporium, stuffed with furniture, dishes, books, lithographs, frames, and the most impressive taxidermy collection I’ve ever seen (don’t leave until you’ve spotted the two-headed calf).”

They also spend some words on the future of downtown, mentioning the forthcoming Confluence Project and Haymarket Plaza. Summing up the profile, they add this:

“In many small cities, economic growth tends to mean generic chain stores and a bland aesthetic. But, here, there’s local music playing on the outdoor sound system, local art at the galleries, such as the lovely new 200 Main ... The city is on its way to proving that it can both evolve and preserve its uniqueness.” Minnesota Monthly

On top of all that, the issue’s Editor’s Note from Hutton is all about what she calls “quickcations,” or short trips to towns you don’t normally consider as destination spots – complete with a photo of a bedroom at The Oxbow Hotel. 

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