Looking Ahead 2016

2016 will be huge for the Chippewa Valley – here’s some stuff we’re looking forward to covering

Eric Christenson, Mike Paulus, Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth

There’s a lot in store for the Chippewa Valley in 2016. It’s certainly an exciting time to be here in the middle of all of it, and we’re just as psyched as you are for all the cool things happening around us. So let’s take a quick breather, shake out 2015’s cobwebs, and press in on what should be an amazing year full of ups, downs, new adventures, old traditions, and more. The following is just a glimpse into what we’re excited about covering in 2016. 


 

PULLING THE LID OFF THE CANNERY DISTRICT

The Brewing Projekt
Rendering of the new Brewing Projekt.

Now that the redevelopment of downtown Eau Claire is chugging along, city visionaries are turning their attention across the Chippewa River and a bit north to what’s been dubbed the Cannery District. The riverside neighborhood, an underused former industrial area north of West Madison Street – which, as you might have guessed, used to be home to canneries – is ripe for a makeover. Part of the revamp could be a return to the neighborhood’s foodie roots: In the near future, the city will likely hire a consultant to study the possibility of putting a year-round indoor public market there. Meanwhile, interested parties – neighbors, businesses, and members of the public – soon will start meeting to create a conceptual plan for the district. A Community Vision Session will be at 7pm Thursday, Jan. 21, at the new Lazy Monk Brewing, 97 W. Madison St. Eau Claire economic development director Mike Schatz says stakeholders will begin to discuss what housing and commercial possibilities the neighborhood offers. (Plans for parks and trails in the district were drafted last year.) One business is already interested in expanding in the district: The Brewing Projekt has outgrown its location at 2000 N. Oxford Ave. and wants to expand its craft brewing operations across the street to a historic brick building at 1807 N. Oxford. The brewery is current negotiating with the city’s Redevelopment Authority to buy the property. Meanwhile, the RDA is hoping to buy up a few more parcels in the area, so stay tuned for future (re-)developments. – V1 Staff


FORGET ALL THOSE NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS … LET’S EAT

The Chippewa Valley seems all set to broaden its culinary landscape in 2016. New restaurants, resurrected favorites, trusted owners expanding into other ventures – it’s all on the table, so to speak. In Eau Claire, you can get late night sushi at the new Ninja Sushi spot on South Barstow Street, which opened its doors just before the new year. We’ll also see what the powers behind Mona Lisa’s Restaurant have in store for Water Street when they open a new eatery next door to Mona’s. Just down the road, plans were announced in December that would transform the old Kaiser Lumber Co. office on Menomonie Street into a completely renovated eatery. The brick building is a century old or so, and once the renovation is finished, the new bar-and-grill style restaurant could be an anchor for other development in that area. Chippewa Falls could see a brand new restaurant take roots in a currently vacant building on Bay Street in downtown, which was bought by Keith Street LLC last year. Elsewhere, the owners of Rump’s Butcher Shoppe in Altoona have plans to open a meaty new eatery called Hangar 54 Grill, a restaurant within the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport. – V1 Staff


The Lismore, formerly the Ramada Inn
The Lismore, formerly the Ramada Inn

YOU CAN’T SPELL ‘HOTEL’ WITHOUT ‘HOT’

as tourist industry grows, Valley will welcome five new inns - words: tom giffey, photo: andrea paulseth

Perhaps it would be an exaggeration to call 2016 the “Year of the Hotel” in the Chippewa Valley. After all, we’ve had hotels around here since Eau Claire was born 160 years ago. Nonetheless, the label has some merit. If all things go as planned, the Eau Claire area will see five new lodging establishments open (or re-open) this year: The Lismore, formerly the Ramada Inn on South Barstow Street; the Oxbow, formerly the Green Tree Inn, a few blocks away; the Fairfield Inn & Suites at the interchange of U.S. 53 and the North Crossing; the Staybridge Suites in Altoona’s River Prairie development, just east of Eau Claire; and the Cobblestone Hotel and Suites on Bridge Street in Chippewa Falls.

Excluding for a moment the Chippewa Falls hotel and its 45 rooms, the four new hotels in Eau Claire County alone will add 367 new rooms to the 2,000 already provided by hotels and motels in the area served by Visit Eau Claire, the regional tourism promotion group.

Having shiny new hotels might be nice for visitors, you say, but what about the proprietors of those existing 2,000 rooms? Won’t business simply shift from existing hotels to new ones? Not necessarily, says Visit Eau Claire Executive Director Linda John.

“There are many weekends of the year when we need more inventory in the market,” John explains. Especially during major music festivals and sports tournaments, she says, “There are times when we literally need more rooms.” Overall, tourism is a growing business in the Chippewa Valley, which increases demand for accommodations as well.

Two of the hotels – The Lismore, which is expected to open in April, and The Oxbow, whose owners are aiming for August – will fill an important gap, namely the lack of overnight accommodations in downtown Eau Claire.

“It’s pretty acute,” John says of the need for downtown rooms. “There’s definitely growing, pent-up demand for convention business. State associations are looking for a downtown location.” With its remodeled convention space, which is already in use, The Lismore will help meet this demand. John says she has fielded unsolicited calls from groups wanting to hold conventions at The Lismore.

The two downtown hotels will also provide other amenities lacking in the market, many of which will appeal to locals and travelers alike. “We have designed the restaurant, coffee shop, and bar with locals in mind first,” says Zach Halmstad of Pablo Properties, which owns the hotel. The Lismore’s restaurant will be named The Informalist, which “will focus on locally sourced food and a great wine menu in a contemporary casual setting,” Halmstad says. It will feature a penny-topped bar overlooking the kitchen, a wood-fired pizza oven, and will be open seven days a week. The hotel will also feature a second-floor bar, dubbed simply Dive, which will be where the hotel’s pool used to be. In addition to craft cocktails, Dive will feature glass walls and a walkout to a rooftop patio with views of downtown.

The hotel will include 112 rooms, including five one-bedroom suites and two two-bedroom suites. “This renovation is creating a building that is modern with hints of raw industrial charm inside and out,” says Julia Johnson, also of Pablo Properties. “It will certainly be a different feel from some our favorite haunts with walls full of old relics to stare at, but we tried to offer something different focused on the beauty of natural materials, without getting too contemporary or out-of-place for Eau Claire.”

Elsewhere in downtown Eau Claire, the 30-room Oxbow – whose ownership group includes Halmstad as well as Volume One editor/publisher Nick Meyer, Eau Claire Regional Arts Center director Ben Richgruber, and Grammy-winning musician Justin Vernon – will offer a “boutique” experience, including a regionally flavored restaurant created by local chef Nathan Berg; a bar and jazz club; an in-house art gallery; and canoe, tube, kayak, and bike rentals just a few dozen yards from the downtown’s rivers and bike trails. Renovation began in earnest in the fall, and the owners aim to open the hotel by the second annual Eaux Claires Music & Arts festival this August.

The area’s other new hotels will be affiliated with major brands. The 90-unit Fairfield Inn & Suites, a franchise of Marriott, is slated to open this spring on the northeast side of Eau Claire in the Princeton Crossing development. The hotel is being developed by Haselwander Companies.

About a mile further south on U.S. 53, the 120-room Staybridge Suites is being built in the northwest quadrant of the River Prairie Development, which straddles U.S. 53. The 90,000-square-foot facility, which is being developed by Larson Companies, will cater to business and extended-stay travelers when it opens in July.

Meanwhile, in Chippewa Falls, ground was broken in early January for the Cobblestone Hotel, which is part of a Neenah-based chain of 74 hotels in 12 states. The Cobblestone will be built on the former site of the Plaza Building on Bridge Street at the entrance to the Chippewa Falls downtown. It’s expected to open in August. – Tom Giffey


Eau Claire City Manager Dale Peters
Eau Claire City Manager Dale Peters

INTO THE SPOTLIGHT

after 26 years behind the scenes, Peters is Eau Claire’s new city manager

Dale Peters worked his way through college at UW-Eau Claire doing lighting and technical work at the university’s Kjer Theatre. Everything he did was behind the scenes, he says, except for a single line in Caesar and Cleopatra: “Hark, who goes there?”

Some 30 years later, the answer to that question is “Dale Peters!” The longtime City of Eau Claire employee has stepped into the spotlight in a new role, that of city manager. Peters officially took the job Jan. 1, replacing Russ Van Gompel, whose contract wasn’t renewed by the City Council.

Now that he’ll be more in the public eye, what should the people of Eau Claire know about Peters? “They should know that I’m approachable, transparent,” he says in an interview. “That I work collaboratively. I seek to find solutions across barriers. That’s been a significant part of my work internally.” For example, he helped develop shared positions for purchasing and safety services, ultimately saving taxpayer cash. Now, he hopes to shift this collaborative focus outward, increasing the city’s cooperation with other units of government, educational institutions, businesses, associations, and volunteers. Such cooperation, he believes, can help ease the impact of ongoing state-imposed budget constraints.

Peters says that dealing with budget issues, as well as the tidal wave of employee turnover caused by retiring baby boomers, will be among his top challenges as city administrator. He says he looks forward to working with the city’s “outstanding workforce” as well as his bosses, the 11 members of the City Council, who ultimately set the city’s priorities.

Among those priorities will undoubtedly be seeing the Confluence Project to fruition. Peters is optimistic about the prospects for downtown Eau Claire in general and the Confluence’s performing arts center in particular. While the city is supporting the project financially, the arts center will be jointly controlled by UW-Eau Claire and a nonprofit arts group. “The model is a very viable model, and I’m excited to see it going forward,” he says.

“People seem excited and energized by what’s happening downtown,” he continues, “and it’s exciting to see that enthusiasm.”

Early in his city career, he recalls being involved in decisions about the long-vacant Phoenix Steel site in downtown Eau Claire; last month, he watched as thousands of residents gathered for the “Let It Glow!” tree lighting celebration in what is now Phoenix Park.

“I think people want a sense of community, and the core of a community is its downtown or its center,” he says. “And when you have a vibrant, energized active downtown, it creates a much better overall community.”

Peters, a Madison native, received a bachelor’s degree from UWEC before returning to his hometown to earn a master’s in business administration from UW-Madison. After three years working for ConAgra in Omaha, Neb., he moved back to Eau Claire in 1989 to become the city’s risk manager. He’s been working at City Hall ever since, serving in various positions, including human resources director and, most recently, as assistant city manager. “I found that I had a real heart for public service, and I found it very rewarding to play a small part in creating our community,” he says of his 26-year career with the city.

Peters and his wife, Tally, have two grown children, 23-year-old Sam and 21-year-old Erin. In his spare time, he enjoys exploring the Chippewa Valley’s trails on his bike and rollerblades as well as sailing on Lake Wissota and the Great Lakes. For 28 consecutive years, he’s been part of a crew that has competed in the Chicago Yacht Club’s annual Race to Mackinac, which can take sailors anywhere between 30 and 90 hours to complete. All that sailing experience may come in handy now that his hand is on the rudder of the good ship Eau Claire. – Tom Giffey


FESTIVALS WILL HEAT UP THIS SUMMER

2015 saw the debut of two new major music festivals in the Valley: Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival and Blue Ox Music Festival. I mean, at this rate, by 2020, every summer weekend will be booked up with major music festivals. So far as we know, that’s not actually the way it works, but we’ll still get excited for the ones we’ve got. This summer should be an extension of all the musical greatness established last year. No official word on lineups for Eaux Claires or Rockfest in Cadott yet, though rumors are circulating. If it doesn’t storm like it did last year, and turn the campground into a good ol’ fashioned mud pit, Blue Ox is quickly building up its reputation as one of the absolute premier bluegrass festivals in the country. This year, they’ve got Pert Near Sandstone (a Minneapolis group who helps curate the lineup), The Sam Bush Band, Railroad Earth, and Blitzen Trapper among their headliners. Country Fest in Cadott will see the shining faces of Kenny Chesney, Carrie Underwood, and Dierks Bentley grace their grounds. Meanwhile back in Eau Claire, Country Jam is ready to welcome the party-bro-country-pop tunes of Florida Georgia Line, with the likes of Jason Aldean and Jake Owen to make your cowboy hats swoon. Eaux Claires moves to August 12 and 13, and if it is anything like last year, it should again set the bar high with a diverse slate of music acts, experiential art pieces, installations, interactions, and more. However, the details of which are still stewing in the brains of the festival team: Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Aaron Dessner of The National, and creative director Michael Brown. We’re on the edge of our seats while they deliberate on the lineup, which should be announced in the next few weeks.  – V1 Staff


MEANWHILE, ACROSS THE VALLEY ...

Not do be outdone by all the goings on in the Valley’s biggest city, the folks in Altoona, Menomonie, and Chippewa Falls will be keeping up in 2016. In Altoona, expect continued growth in the booming River Prairie development, including the opening of a new hotel. Over in Dunn County, this may be the year that Menomonie takes care of its stinkiest problem. Mayor Randy Knaack says the city is in the process of getting the permits necessary to dredge parts of Lake Menomonin, both to improve navigation and to get rid of several feet of muck that he says contributes to putrid-smelling, unsightly algae blooms in summer. Elsewhere in Menomonie, this spring will see the construction of an open-air farmers market pavilion on Eighth Street; the pavilion will be made with local wood, including a tree harvested from the site. Knaack also hopes to explore building a pocket park downtown and creating in-town camping in the city. In Chippewa Falls, bids will soon be open for the next phase of construction on a downtown riverfront park. City Planner Jayson Smith says ground will be broken for the project this spring. Meanwhile, work is expected to be finished by Memorial Day on a $3.5 million visitors center and animal exhibit space at Irvine Park Zoo in Chippewa Falls, while the city also expects to build a new fire station in the southeast corner of town.  – V1 Staff


CONFLUENCE WILL FINALLY DIG IN

This spring or summer, a full four years after the bold proposal was announced, ground will finally be broken for the performing arts center portion of the Confluence Project in downtown Eau Claire. As 2016 began, philanthropic fundraising for the project had just passed the $12 million mark – due in part to exceeding a $500,000 goal to secure an anonymous $1 million challenge grant. The total amount raised is now within sight of the $13.5 million needed in community donations to qualify for funding from the state, county, and city. Once fundraising is finished and architectural designs for the shared university-community arts center are complete, expect to see ceremonial shovels and hard hats out in full force down where the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers meet. Meanwhile, work continues in earnest on the six-story Haymarket Landing, the privately funded mixed-use portion of the Confluence Project. The building, which has been rising on South Barstow Street for the past year, is slated for completion by summer 2016. It will include retail and commercial space on the first floor and 119 student-oriented apartments on the upper floors, creating a symbiotic living-learning environment with the performing arts center next door.  – V1 Staff


CRANES, CRANES, AND MORE CRANES

The Confluence Project will undoubtedly grab a lot of headlines, but there will be plenty of other action in downtown Eau Claire in 2016. In other words, don’t expect those construction cranes to vanish. In fact, they may multiply.

For one thing, the new 770-spot parking ramp on North Barstow Street is slated for completion by September. Once the long-awaited ramp is open, one of the last remaining puzzle pieces in the North Barstow/Phoenix Park neighborhood will fall into place: the development of Block 7, a.k.a. The Livery lot. Eau Claire developer Geoff Moeding, who’s been involved in numerous projects in the neighborhood, has a 90-day exclusive right to negotiate a development agreement for the block with the city’s Redevelopment Authority; his plan calls for four buildings, worth between $14 million and $16 million, which would provide retail and residential space.

Mike Schatz, the city’s economic development administrator, says he also expects movement toward developing the so-called “liner site” between the new parking ramp and North Barstow (roughly where the old post office was). This site could become some combination of housing, retail, or office space.

Schatz is also optimistic that plans will emerge in 2016 to use the Huebsch building site at the corner of Galloway and Dewey streets. Late last year, owner Jack Kaiser began to remodel the historic brick building, but work halted after it was determined the structure would likely have to be demolished. Despite this setback, Schatz said he’s already fielded calls from potential buyers interested in the site, which has riverfront and bike trail access.  – V1 Staff


 

PREDICTION INFLICTION

an uneducated guess at what we’ll be talking about in 2016

Using a secret combination of insider info, Brazilian voodoo, five-and-a-half supercomputers, complex thought experiments, and good old fashioned crystal ballery, we have formulated what we believe to be some of the more likely (and noteworthy) local occurrences of 2016. See what you think. In one year’s time, if none of these things come to pass, you have our sincerest apologies and shruggiest shoulder shrugs.

• The roaring critical acclaim heard in the wake of 2015’s Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival encourages organizers to push their off-the-wall performance concepts even further in 2016. The delightful and spontaneous “pop-up collaborations” between artists around the festival grounds will give way to “pop-up cohabitations” where fest goers will suddenly find themselves sharing a cramped, humid, second floor Niagara Street apartment with The Blind Boys of Alabama.

• In an effort to simplify the Chippewa Valley’s identity and better share resources, a small group of well-meaning locals petition to combine Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls, Menomonie, and Altoona into single municipality called “O'Menomoclarna Falls.” It fails.

• Recognizing the colossal thirst for locally brewed beer behind the success and expansion of practically every Chippewa Valley craft brewer in the previous year, a ragtag group of well-funded financial planners hire a business strategist to design a boutique company based on the models found in street-level beverage re-marketing and growth hacking of the viral leverage we see in the millennial wheelhouse. We’re talking a total onboard pre-revenue ideation shift.

• During construction on the much anticipated Confluence Project Arts Center, crews fail to properly tether a hot air balloon-based crane to the ground allowing blustery autumn winds to break it free. Luckily, after the crane floats down Barstow Street, its hook gets snagged on a local bar.

• Riding high on the ongoing successes of their River Prairie development area, the City of Altoona unleashes concept art for a town mascot named “Ali Toots,” a scrappy anthropomorphic mixed-use building housing a Dunkin’ Donuts in its bottom half and wine-loving citizens in the apartment up top. Altoona’s marketing firm promises many economic adventures for the precocious Ali Toots.

• A small team of local entrepreneurs will begin construction on a quirky motel in downtown Menomonie called Been There Dunn That, evoking a “Slightly More North Woods Vibe.”

• Eau Claire’s inconsiderate motorists mourn the loss of another beloved shortcut – careening through the Family Video/Little Caesar's parking lot to bypass the lights at Madison Street and Oxford Avenue like total idiots. By year’s end, Family Video will have begun construction on its inflatable party dome, dubbed “The Compoundnd.”

• Under pressure from stiff competition with gas station newcomers, in a move shocking their loyal patrons, Kwik Trip and Holiday announce plans to merge, forming a gassy new franchise called “Kwoliday.”

• Early in the year, state lawmakers completely reverse 2015’s budget cuts to the UW System, adding back $250 million to our beleaguered institutions, plus an additional $30 million “to say how very sorry we feel about the whole thing.” By year’s end, state universities reinstate every eliminated position and discontinued program. The state once again actively competes for and attracts qualified, dynamic educators, helping to propel the state towards a viable position in the national economy. – Mike Paulus

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