Crazy development projects, notable locals doing amazing things, creatives putting out stunning work, businesses reaching new levels of innovation – we really do live in a special place. But here’s our question for you: Were you paying attention? We do a Year In Review quiz every year around this time, and our editors have written questions designed to stump, befuddle, confuse, confound, and bewilder you. Are you a master of all things western Wisconsin? Take the quiz and see for yourself.
QUIZ: V1 STAFF • photos ANDREA PAULSETH + BRANDEN NALL + LUONG HUYNH
Take this quiz to prove your valley wisdom!
After more than half a decade of planning, multiple referendums, and immeasurable blood, sweat, and tears, the Pablo Center at the Confluence opened to the public in September. The $60 million community-university arts facility features multiple theaters and performance spaces, art galleries, Visit Eau Claire’s “Experience Center,” a soaring three-story lobby, classrooms and offices, a recording studio, and spacious rehearsal and backstage areas. For most of the facility’s development, it was referred to as the Confluence Project, but its official name was announced in February.
VOICE OF THE PEOPLE
Chippewa Valley native Chris Kroeze rose to the final rounds of the national talent competition, The Voice. This wedding-singing performer rallied locals to cast their vote to support him in the show.
Menomonie will boast two new breweries after the Dec. 1 opening of Zymurgy on Main Street and the January soft opening of Brewery Nønic (say that five times fast ... or even once fast) on Fourth Street.
Zymurgy – which is the word for the study or practice of fermentation – inhabits an old auto repair shop, while Ryan Verdon refurbished an old railroad depot in classic style for Brewery Nønic.
About 25 miles east, the Brewing Projekt opened the doors to its new taproom, just across the street from its old location at 1807 N Oxford Ave. Not to be left out of the fun, Fall Creek will be home to a new brewery sometime in the spring or early summer of 2019.
ICE, ICE, BABY
This fall a junior league hockey team made its debut in Chippewa Falls. The team, part of the North American Hockey League – whose alumni have made it into Division I college teams and even the NHL – previously played in La Crosse, where they were known as the Coulee Regional Chill.
Last spring’s local election brought large-scale change to the Eau Claire City Council, with four challengers defeating incumbents for district seats on the council. Generally speaking, the newcomers were younger and more progressive than those they replaced.
The election also gave the council a larger proportion of female members. Two months later, incumbent City Council President Kerry Kincaid abruptly resigned just hours before a council meeting, stating that “it has become impossible to govern in a manner befitting a city that works.”
Altoona’s U.S. Highway 53-spanning River Prairie development continued to add new features and businesses in 2018, including several new restaurants with numerical names. One is a gastropub with American-style cuisine upstairs as well as a downstairs space (called Vs.) with video games, TVs, and a bar. The other is a pizza place opened by the Draganowski family, which is best known locally for serving up Italian classics at Draganetti’s Ristorante.
In the beginning of 2018, it became abundantly clear that the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival was intentionally not releasing its lineup of musical acts for its fourth annual fest in July. That bold decision, rooted in a purposeful subversion of the typical music festival model, was met with mixed feelings for obvious reasons.
The lineup leaked slowly with bread crumbs from a dedicated Reddit thread and cryptic tweets from co-founder Justin Vernon, but the shroud of mystery was still too much to entice the kind of attendance numbers the fest has seen in previous years.
Even with artists like Pussy Riot, Noname, Moses Sumney, and The National on the bill, wild art installations on the grounds, and some particularly cool shows in town for Prex Claires in the days leading up, Eaux Claires caught – and still catches – backlash for the no-lineup lineup.
In November after some reflection, the festival organizers announced that they would be taking a “gap year” in 2019 to regroup before returning in 2020 with a whole new model: Instead of going back to Foster Farms, the 2020 fest aims to bring the action to downtown Eau Claire with performances at different venues all around the city center, including the new Pablo Center. Eaux Claires doesn’t plan to leave 2019 completely dry however, and organizers have announced plans for a few stop-gap events throughout next year.
REST IN PEACE, RAY
For TV viewers across the Midwest and beyond, Ray Szmanda was beloved as “the Menards Guy,” having spent more than 20 years as the pitchman in countless ads for the Eau Claire-based home improvement chain.
Known for his blue Menards shirt, black-rimmed glasses, and enthusiasm about how shoppers could “Save Big Money!” on everything from deck stain to chainsaws, Szmanda was a regional celebrity who some viewers assumed was actually the stores’ founder, John Menard.
Szmanda died in May at age 91 at his home in Antigo, Wisconsin. While it brought him fame, working for Menards was only one item on Szmanda’s long résumé.
For several years, Eau Claire residents have eagerly awaited the redevelopment of two downtown spaces:
Block 7 (the parking lot across from the Livery), and the so-called “liner site” (in front of the new parking ramp).
Now, the rebirth of these two plots is more likely than ever thanks to a decision in November by the Eau Claire Redevelopment Authority to enter negotiations with Pablo Properties to build on the two sites.
In November, Eau Claire County voted on a referendum concerning cannabis legalization. 25,964 residents voted to indicate support for cannabis being legal for adults 21 years and older for medicinal and recreational use. 14,958 voted in favor of cannabis being legal for medical use only and 6,982 voted in support of cannabis remaining criminally illegal.
The referendum has no legal standing, so marijuana remains criminally illegal within the state and federally. Later that month, pot returned to center stage as the City Council voted to reduce the city fine for possession to $1.
WATER UNDER THE BRIDGE
The Chippewa Valley’s many bridges are both scenic and useful whether you’re on foot, on a bike, or behind the wheel. The newest bridge in downtown Eau Claire is a 210-foot steel structure designed for pedestrians that was officially opened in September, just before the grand opening of the Pablo Center at the Confluence.
The Eau Claire City Council voted to approve an ordinance allowing for urban chicken keeping in the city in November. The ordinance establishes guidelines for the keeping of up to five hens per year, with rules regarding the shelter, food storage, and sanitation of the critters. Until this point, chickens have been completely outlawed from all parts of the city.
However, other farm animals have been permitted in areas considered “rural,” according to the city code.
Foxconn Technology Group, a multinational electronics maker, announced in 2017 that it planned to build a $10 billion facility in southeastern Wisconsin. (In exchange, the Taiwanese firm will receive as much as $4.8 billion in state, local, and federal subsidies, in what has been called the largest subsidy package for a foreign firm in U.S. history.)
Last summer, the company announced it was expanding what it calls the Wisconn Valley Innovation network to the Eau Claire area, with plans to create a technology hub here and at least 150 local jobs.
Julian Emerson’s “A Tale of Two Eau Claires” ran in the Leader-Telegram in September, just before the grand opening of the Pablo Center at the Confluence.
The piece drew attention to the local population experiencing poverty and housing insecurity against the backdrop of multi-million dollar investments in economic development projects.
Emerson referenced the Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) project, a study by the United Way of Wisconsin that provides data about low-income individuals and households.
After 92 years of concerts, theatrical productions, dance extravaganzas, and a myriad of performances in between, the State Theatre closed its doors to make way for the $60 million state-of-the-art Pablo Center at the Confluence.
The State originally was built in the 1920s for silent films and vaudeville shows and was reborn in the 1980s as a hub for the Chippewa Valley’s nascent cultural scene as a home for the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center and burgeoning local theater troupes. The fate of the historic building is still up in the air, but ECRAC board member Sally Sundby told us this summer that it has a lot of potential, saying “It needs a lot of work, but it’s got good bones.”
FOOD TRUCK FRENZY
2018 could be known in the Chippewa Valley as the year of the food truck. In February, the Eau Claire City Council approved an ordinance that expanded the list of parks where licensed food trucks could operate.
Then in June, the Council again loosened up some of the restrictive regulations for mobile eateries by cutting food truck license fees, extending license periods, expanding hours of operation, and opening even more areas to food trucks.
This year we saw (literally) tons of new food trucks spring up on the scene as well, like the farm-fresh Locavore Mobile Kitchen, the savory hip-hop themed dishes of Smoke Stream, the barbecue-centric River Pig BBQ, and more. Over here at V1, we launched Food Truck Fridays, where one Friday a month (the warmer ones), a dozen or so food trucks post up at the Railroad Lot all day smack dab in the middle of downtown Eau Claire for lunch and dinner.
STYLIN’ AND PROFILIN’
Food & Wine magazine published a deep profile of Eau Claire's restaurant scene in October. The magazine – which is nationally well-known for featuring taste-making recipes, cooking tips, travel information, restaurant reviews, and more – took a long look at the city, acknowledging its place in small-town America and its "no-bull factory town" roots, while also digging deeper to realize there's more going on than outsiders may realize.
They said, “• the uninitiated visitor might not immediately grasp just exactly what is going on, and when they do, they might be taken by surprise, wondering how a relatively quiet town like Eau Claire could vibe so modern, so cool, and not just college cool (there’s a big state school here), but so much more than that."
Besides the rivers and trails and Eau Claire's downtown area, the article touches on The Lismore Hotel and The Informalist, Just Local Food, SHIFT Cyclery & Coffee Bar, The Oxbow Hotel and The Lakely, the Pablo Center, the Downtown Farmers Market, Mona Lisa's, Forage, and The Brewing Projekt.
NEW WAY TO PLAY
As its nearly 30-year-old predecessor reached the end of its run, Carson Park’s playground received a beautiful, lime-green upgrade this summer.
The $480,000 project features areas designed for different age groups and ability levels so that those in the 2- to 5-year-old age bracket can enjoy themselves as well as 5- to 12-year-olds. More than 13 elevated play elements, including a glider swing, are accessible to children in wheelchairs. The gravel ground cover was replaced with a rubbery safety surface, providing easier terrain for little wheels. It’s also the first park in Eau Claire that features a zip line.
Once known as the Menomonie Street Dairy Queen, a Chippewa Valley favorite for outrageously delicious burgers and over-sized ice cream portions, this restaurant expanded its menu to offer even more munchies in 2018.
The venue now serves doughnuts every morning, provided you get there before other hungry breakfasters. The restaurant and drive through also changed its name, ditching the DQ logo in favor of the new moniker, Roadside Ice Cream & Diner.
AND NOW, TO MAKE IT ALL ABOUT US …
Over here at the V1 World Headquarters, we were pretty busy in 2018. It’s kinda hard to wrap our heads around all the new and exciting stuff we did this year, but here goes.
To start off the year, we celebrated the release of our annual Best of the Chippewa Valley Reader Poll issue with a giant cocktail party at The Lismore called Best Night, where poll winners and friends of all kinds could eat, drink, check out a VR booth and roving performers, watch local comedians perform in the back of our van – y’know … a little bit of everything.
At the Best Night, we also gave Chippewa Valley Vanguard Awards to four locals who have impacted the Valley in profound ways. That was a first too.
This fall, we teamed up with the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce to put together a project called Think Eau Claire aimed at attracting people to come live here.
And to cap it all off, in November, we brought together some of the most creative people we know for a unique live stage show at the Pablo Center called True North.
Is that everything?
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