With the Current

how increased interaction with our rivers will change more than just recreation

With our well-established base of tubing, kayaking, and canoeing, a massive redevelopment of the riverfront is a crucial opportunity to take advantage of these recreational mainstays. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, several of the ideas put forth in various plans not only call for the creation of a recreation corridor, but an all-out destination.

From the perspective of Mike Schatz, executive director of Downtown Eau Claire Inc., this is an opportunity for new events to solidify. He said in recent years they’ve had some preliminary talks about events other waterfront cities hold, such as dragon boat races (an amateur paddling race with about 20 people per wooden boat). DECI and the South Barstow Business Improvement District’s recent Master Plan for visualizing a new downtown mentioned capitalizing on the adventure tourism market with events related to tubing, fishing, canoeing, and/or kayaking.

Of course, DECI’s not the only one with a major event in mind. The Eau Claire Waterways Plan likewise commented with, “The community should consider creating a privately led summer festival of fun outdoor events themed around the water. A major regional model would be the Minneapolis Aquatennial.” That annual event (held since 1940) is a 10-day festival in July that includes sand castle contests, sports tournaments, parades, a block party, Milk Carton Boat Races, and fireworks.

The Good Life, the Chippewa Valley Museum’s 2010 cultural survey, likewise identified one massive annual event, or several seasonal ones, as a need. “Not only would the river(s) serve as a backdrop for the event, but it’s critical that they honor and incorporate said bodies,” it read.

Chippewa Valley Museum points to Providence, Rhode Island’s annual WaterFire event as an example. It involves more than a hundred riverfront and floating bonfires that illuminate the waters, invite walking the riverfront, and also connect public spaces as various performances beckon along the way. Louisiana, Missouri’s annual Winter River Festival is likewise exemplary, the plan states. It includes music, beer/wine tastings, barbeque competitions, and a polar plunge, but climaxes with the House of Fire and Ice event, where groups of citizens build fortresses out of 15-foot blocks of ice filled with lumber that are then set ablaze and provide hours of entertainment.

Recent plans have gone even further, suggesting a re-branding campaign for the waterways, the bridges, the downtown, the trails, and in some respects the whole city.

The Good Life suggests that the way to brand our waterways consistently and attractively (through news, public relations, signage, and more) is to take a lesson from England and Pennsylvania. The Discover the River Thames campaign coordinates leaflets, posters, a website, and regular PR with simple and effective messages that employ help from private and public partnerships. The Pennsylvania River of the Year program promotes their waterways (and has since 1983) through posters, activities, an annual float event, and educational programs. “This would be a much-needed boost to encourage use, appreciation, and awareness,” The Good Life states.

The Waterways Plan agreed that a marketing campaign must emphasize “water-related outdoor recreation, natural beauty, family fun, and local water access.” If things go according to plan, the campaign would include regional waterways maps with nearby parks, paths, entertainment, and attractions included. It would also mean way-finding and interpretive signage along said parks, trails, and key streets. Not only would the signs be new, but also maybe the names. The plan states they intend to name segments of trail for further promotion (and identification) such as Old Abe Trail, Huskie Trail, and Randall Park Loop. Some of this has already been enacted (see inset photo). The signage will continue on all of the bridges, marking the body of water you’re traversing over.

As you may have seen in Ayres Associates’ early design ideas for the redesign of Eau Claire and Barstow streets, they featured a heavy aesthetic motif to fit the rivers. The pylons, boulders, art, and decorative pavers are organized in a manner that suggest “flow.” While not quite as obvious as downtown, the West Riverside District is slated for public art, decorative railings, murals, street inlays, and maybe even custom manhole covers that could also have a river motif. And the Waterways Plan says the aesthetics of bridges and piers will be taken into consideration, as well.

Sounds like our past prominence as a river city could be poised for a comeback …

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