Opening Letters

Old Town, New Life

what I learned about reviving Eau Claire ... when I went to Seattle

Eric Larsen, illustrated by Luke Benson |

I recently finished a week in Seattle listening to the experiences of other cities working to revitalize and build economic opportunities for their citizens. More than 3,000 municipal leaders from across the country attended the National League of Cities Conference. It was an interesting experience in an exciting city. But ultimately the reason I went was to learn something and apply it to our situation at home. I decided to reflect on a few things I learned and see how they might apply to the decisions we need to make about the Confluence Project. I settled on five:

1. An educated population is a good predictor of economic success.

In fact, an educated population “lifts all boats.” Everyone in a community benefits from having a well-educated population. In Eau Claire we have an excellent technical college and one of the most respected universities in the Upper Midwest. Both are positive assets for Eau Claire, for the Chippewa Valley, and for the broader west-central Wisconsin area. People learn things here, things that could help us grow our regional economy. How do we keep them here?

2. Talent is mobile.

People with the right skills can find work if they are willing to relocate. Young people entering the workforce now are deciding where they want to live before they decide what they want to do. We have heard that fact mentioned during the many public discussions we have had at City Council meetings regarding the Confluence Project. It would be wise for us to build on the positive assets we have in Eau Claire that will be attractive to the young talent our technical college and university produce every year.

People with the right skills can find work if they are willing to relocate. Young people entering the workforce now are deciding where they want to live before they decide what they want to do.

3. Young talent is looking for vibrant urban settings.

Young, skilled entrepreneurs are looking for places where they don’t have to rely on their cars to get where they need to be. They prefer to walk or ride bicycles. They are looking for places where they can live, work, and entertain themselves all in close proximity. They want safe and attractive routes to get where they need to go.

Changing Barstow Street and Graham Avenue into two-way streets set us back in the safe pathways department, but our assets far outweigh our deficits. Eau Claire has a beautiful trail system with much potential for expansion. We have started developing those assets downtown with Phoenix Park, more trails, and the remodeled Barstow Street, all with the rivers’ confluence as a backdrop.

We also now have attractive restaurants, shops, pubs, condos, cultural events, a tech company, and a farmer’s market north of the Eau Claire River. I am optimistic about the future of downtown Eau Claire. Locating UWEC students downtown as part of the Confluence Project would give them greater exposure to the positive assets we can offer if they stay in Eau Claire after graduation.

The Confluence Project can help expand the entertainment arts industry and add to the existing industries we have downtown, enhancing our attractiveness to young talent. If we want to be competitive in economic development we must be diverse, not only in our population, but also in the menu of talent we offer potential businesses and entrepreneurs.

I wrote some of this column as I sat for lunch in the Hard Rock Cafe in Seattle. My attention was diverted momentarily by a Bon Iver music video playing on the monitors. We have an internationally renowned young artist in our community. He travels the world working with thousands of people in the arts industry, and he has decided to keep his home here. Our university is internationally recognized for its outstanding arts program. Add to that the existing artistic and cultural groups and events in Eau Claire, and there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about what an expansion of the entertainment arts industry could bring.

4. Historic preservation has an important role in revitalization.

Downtown Eau Claire is rich in history. Preserving that history needs to be central to our revitalization. The creation of a public plaza needs to reflect our pioneer and lumber-industry roots. Historic themes in new development enhance the beauty of our historic buildings, and we have many of them downtown. The sandstone facade at the Professional Building (515 S Barstow St.) is unique to the geological characteristics of the Chippewa Valley. The federal courthouse has the beautiful architecture common to government buildings in the early 20th century. Acoustic Café, Houligans, the Antique Emporium, the other buildings at Main and Barstow, almost all of the 300 block of South Barstow, the west side of the 200 block of South Barstow, and the Stones Throw Building are all valuable assets to downtown revitalization (and that’s just Barstow Street).

Today, there is some controversy over the potential loss of seven buildings marked for replacement by the Confluence Project. With the right developer and enough investment, some of those buildings could be historic assets. But that has not happened in the last half-century or more since the buildings began their long, slow process of deterioration. There were recent attempts to restore a few of them, but the owner of one is now fighting for the right to demolish it. The Confluence developers initially explored preserving them, but after looking at the structures and the project needs, they decided it wasn’t feasible.

It is time we make hard decisions about whether those buildings or the proposed Confluence Project are in the best long-term interest of our downtown and the regional economy. Take heart, Eau Claire: We have many assets downtown that will preserve our historic feel even if we ultimately lose some to the Confluence Project.

5. Don’t make placemaking the thing you do after you pay for everything else.

“Placemaking” leverages local assets and talent to increase the value of a community, spur economic opportunity, and allow people to succeed where they are. Ideally it should create a mixture of activities in a place where people want to go and linger.

We have strong momentum toward creating just such a place downtown. We have an opportunity to leverage assets from the university, the city and county governments, and local nonprofit organizations to take our arts and entertainment assets to the next level. Add that to our existing tech, financial, and medical industry employment, as well as condo living, cultural events, parks, an extensive trail system, dining, and nightlife, and we could leave the next generation a place that rivals the best in Wisconsin.

That doesn’t mean we should pour limitless financial assets into the project to make it happen. We need to protect taxpayers in the process. But I believe the question we should be asking is, “How can we make this happen?” not “What can we do to stop it?”

Editor’s note: Larsen, a retired Eau Claire police officer, was elected to an at-large seat on the Eau Claire City Council in April. He can be reached at