Opening Letters

A Tale of Two Cities

students and locals need to break from their insularity

Trevor Kupfer, illustrated by Ryan Carpentier |

A university student sent me an e-mail recently. “There are 10,000 students on campus,” she began, “and I believe that they could be a great contributor to Eau Claire. I completely agree that ‘Being on campus is like being in a whole different city,’ but I think it would be nice to blend them.”

Her e-mail came at the perfect time – just after the Census Bureau released its newest data – and to the perfect person – someone who recently came back to the area after graduating, and immediately felt a strange separation.

I’m a local now, a member of Eau Claire’s young professionals. You’ll find many of us downtown. I used to be a student, a member of Eau Claire’s educated and creative class. You’ll find many of them on Water Street.

Why are these groups so separate? For me, it’s a difference of only two years. I haven’t changed that much. A more important question to ask is: why aren’t we doing something about this? Both groups, whether they know it or not, stand to benefit a great deal by reaching out to a community that is otherwise foreign to them.

Both camps have the tendency to be very insular. As one of Volume One’s writers told me, “probably half of the people here don’t even know about the college population. They just never cross paths,” he said, adding that he grew up in town. “UWEC was just a building on Water Street we drive past occasionally.”

Students are more obviously insular, barely making it past Water Street or, if they’re really worldly, the Cameo Budget. I speak from experience, unfortunately. I, like the vast majority of students, didn’t make my way to Chippewa Falls until my senior year – and that was for a Leinie’s tour. You could chop off seven or eight of my fingers for a total of the area parks I visited. When someone who knew of my affinity for cinema suggested I visit “the library,” I had no idea what they were talking about. And, perhaps worst of all, if you asked me where downtown was, I’d give you a strange look and ask if it’s a trick question. “Water Street; duh!”

The latest census unveiled a whole gamut of numbers, from which locals could learn several things. The Leader-Telegram pointed out several in a story on the subject. Last year’s university enrollment was 10,346. That’s 15 percent of the city’s population. Eighteen percent of the local workforce is retail (about 7 percent more than the state and national averages). These are low-paying jobs often held by students. Bob McCoy, president of the area chamber of commerce, quantified student impact on the Eau Claire area between $90 million and $100 million. In economic times such as these, this number should be the one that sticks out the most.

Students and locals have a symbiotic relationship that is mutually beneficial, but the tendency to be insular keeps them from taking advantage of their resources to the full extent.

Students, please leave your comfort zone and take part in some of the awesome things the area has to offer. Parks, waterways, events, public buildings, restaurants, local businesses. Heck, even bars. Oakwood Mall, Phoenix Park, and the Cameo Budget don’t cut it.

Locals, especially business owners, please connect with the university and take advantage of some of the awesome things it has to offer. Students spend money and need jobs. Heck, all of them need service learning, so see if mowing lawns or shoveling snow qualifies. Going to plays, art shows, forums, and concerts doesn’t cut it.

We have local shops that are closing up. We have a downtown that’s aching for revitalization and redevelopment. We have thousands of youths coming to our area annually, many of which leave from whence they came, but all of which want to find local jobs to avoid living in their parents’ basement. If we want to retain talent and have local shops prosper, then make sure students know about you.

Never having been enrolled at UW-Stout, I don’t know if a similar situation exists in Menomonie. But with students providing a huge influx in population every year, my guess is that it’s very similar. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that Eau Claire is far from the only area with this problem. We do, however, have the opportunity to change.