Our 90-Day Bender of Joy

the last 10 years have completely transformed summer in Eau Claire, and now there’s no looking back

Nick Meyer, illustrated by Janae Breunig

Let’s get down to business here and make an official declaration: It’s summer in the Valley. We may still see a chilly day or two, but for all intents and purposes, we’re mere days away from tumbling headlong into a 90-day bender of joy, aka Summertime in the Chippewa Valley. And one of many telltale signs? Music in Phoenix Park.

A lot has changed downtown in the last 10 years. The most visible changes may be in the structures, the storefronts, and the events; but make no mistake – the most important transformation has been our community’s attitude toward itself. There’s a growing optimism – and it burns strongest in the summer.

We recently announced the lineup for the 10th anniversary season of the Sounds Like Summer Concert Series, starting on June 4 (see that lineup on page 13). I know: 10 years. I can hardly believe it either. A whole decade ago we held our very first concert on the banks of the Chippewa River. It was a chilly Thursday in May. Barely 100 people showed up to sit among the few spindly little trees city workers had planted just a few days before. And since then? The crowds have gotten a little bigger. These days, with nearly 2,000 people walking into that park every Thursday night, it’s hard not to notice the impact the concerts have on Downtown Eau Claire. People go out to dinner or pick up picnics on their way in, they shop at the stores that stay open late, and they keep the vibe rolling after the show by heading out for drinks and more music.

What a difference 10 years makes. Thankfully in that span Sounds Like Summer has been just one piece of the action. In the past 10 years, summer in downtown Eau Claire has been dramatically transformed by a whole range of local advancements. And what’s more exciting is that it’s overflowed into the rest of the Valley too.

Think of how far we’ve come and all that’s happened – just downtown – in this last decade. Phoenix Park. The Farmers Market. The Children’s Museum. Phoenix Gardens. The Artist Market. Chalkfest. Tuesday Night Blues. Family Night in the Park. The Sculpture Tour. The tubing scene. New developments. New streets. New trails. New events. New stores. New restaurants. New employers.

And a completely new perspective on what summer here can mean.

Imagine your average college kid in town for school. More than 10 years ago, the phrase “I’m staying in Eau Claire for the summer” may have been closely followed by a sigh of disappointment. But now, it’s the goal. It’s Plan A.

The thinking has changed. One example: When designers sketched out the Phoenix Park amphitheater more than a decade ago, Eau Claire was really living in a different reality. The planners thought there might be some events on that site, but they never came close to expecting the kind of crowds the park now holds every week. So as the concert series and other events there grew, the city literally had to change the design of the park to accommodate what Eau Claire was becoming – what we were working toward. While there’s no doubt those park planners built us a crown jewel of a park, they were thinking a bit smaller when it came to what was possible in that space. It was a line of thinking from before – before most people had caught a glimpse of Eau Claire’s true potential and believed anything is possible here. Add 10 years of progress and success – and now today, welcome to after.

So yes, a lot has transformed downtown the last 10 years. The most visible changes may be in the structures, the storefronts, and the events; but make no mistake – the most important transformation has been our community’s attitude toward itself. There’s a growing optimism – and it burns strongest in the summer.

But even at the blissful height of summer, we know – as a community – that we’re not done with our transformation. Not even close. The work will continue, and we know exciting new things are on both the immediate and long-range horizons – if we can just keep up our attitudes and efforts.

So this summer, as you help us celebrate 10 years of local music on the Chippewa River, and as you enjoy the sounds and sights of thousands of people enjoying themselves in a beautiful downtown park, take stock of this last decade and all we’ve accomplished together. Then give a little thought to what you want to see in the next 10 years. And let’s make it happen.

See you at the park.

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