The Real McCoy
retiring chamber chief reflects on how EC has changed – and how it hasn’t
Just as the economic climate in cities such as Eau Claire has evolved over the past few decades, so have the ways in which civic leaders attempt to recruit and retain businesses.
“Back then you were chasing smokestacks,” Bob McCoy said of the early years of his career. “You were going out trying to get the big manufacturer to come in, the big company, the corporate center. All you focused on was you had land to sell, you had people to go to work.”
“When you see a downtown start to revitalize itself, and when you start talking to younger people that the quality of the community is as important to them as anything else, it starts to change your philosophy.” – Bob McCoy, retiring chamber of commerce president, on how attitudes have changed since he came to Eau Claire in 1994
That’s not necessarily the case now. While big businesses still sometimes relocate or open large new facilities, today there is less emphasis on landing big fish and more on creating a healthy economic and cultural environment where new businesses can flourish.
“When you see a downtown start to revitalize itself, and when you start talking to younger people that the quality of the community is as important to them as anything else, it starts to change your philosophy,” explained McCoy, whose 23-year career as president and CEO of the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce draws to a close on June 2.
“When we saw the result of Royal Credit Union, what that did to North Barstow, and now you start looking at an $80 million project across the river” – the Confluence Project – “and you go, ‘Wow, look what that’s going to do, and we can leverage all this money,’ ” McCoy said.
Such forward-thinking investment and collaboration haven’t always been the norm in Eau Claire. Early in McCoy’s tenure, an attempt to build a convention center downtown fizzled.
“The community was pretty conservative,” McCoy recalled of the climate in the mid-1990s. “It still is, but a little more so back then. The City Council said you’re going to lose ‘X’ number of dollars. There was a plan in place to take care of that, but they just said, ‘Nope, (we’re) not even going to look at it.’ You keep trying, but if you don’t have the city working with you, (it’s) pretty hard to do it.”
McCoy – who was born in Iowa and educated in South Dakota – came to Eau Claire in 1994 from Albert Lea, Minn., where he had led the chamber and economic development agency for eight years. Prior to that, he directed chambers of commerce in Fairmont, Minn., and Rock Rapids, Iowa. He was recruited for the job in Eau Claire in part because of his experience promoting highway projects. At the time, Eau Claire was in the midst of a decades-long effort to build a bypass for U.S. Highway 53. (The bypass finally opened in 2006 after 22 years of advocacy by the chamber.)
When McCoy arrived, the community was still adjusting to the 1992 closure of the Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. The chamber, which had about 600 members (there are now 1,250), had recently moved from a downtown office to Gateway Drive on the city’s south side. At the time, the chamber cut ribbons and ran a money-losing festival. McCoy pushed to get the organization more involved in governmental affairs, hiring a staff member for that role. The chamber trained candidates, tracked public policy, and began holding breakfasts with legislators – a series dubbed “Eggs & Issues” – to better connect businesspeople with elected representatives.
The chamber also launched the Chippewa Valley Rally, an annual event that sends a delegation of Chippewa Valley businesspeople, community leaders, and residents to Madison to help advocate for the area’s interests.
“I knew we had to move to that direction, so that really took us to the point today where I think we have a strong legislative program,” McCoy said. “We work and monitor city (and) county legislation, and we might not always agree, but I think they respect what we do or ask for.”
A little over a decade ago, Dean Schultz of Ayres Associates brought the crowd to its feet during the chamber’s annual meeting by saying the organization should return to downtown Eau Claire. RCU had just built its new headquarters next to what would become Phoenix Park, and the chamber turned to entrepreneur and developer Bill Cigan, who built a new building for the chamber along the Eau Claire River.
“Everybody was thrilled that we were moving back downtown, because they felt that was a spark to get the downtown going,” McCoy recalled. The move has been a huge success, he said, making the group more easily accessible to its members and more visible to the public.
As he reflects on his career with the chamber, McCoy points to a series of successes, from ensuring that a half-cent county sales tax is primarily applied to property tax relief to establishing a locally operated gift certificate program that circulates (and recirculates) at least $400,000 through Eau Claire’s economy annually.
And yet Eau Claire still faces challenges. In terms of community development, McCoy noted, Eau Claire still lacks the financial resources of many other cities. In part, he said, this is because of a shortage of major philanthropist (with a few notable exceptions). It addition, there are caps on city and county budgets, which restricts the size of incentives they can offer to businesses looking to relocate.
“Your hands get tied, so the cities don’t have a lot of leeway to incentivize people to do things,” he said. “Some say that that’s good and bad. The problem is you compete all over the country with communities that do that.”
The city’s tentative temperament is still evident, even in an era where the new Confluence Performing Arts Center is poised to open next year. In other cities, McCoy said, that project – first proposed in 2012 – may have been on a faster track. “But here, because of the conservative nature of people, they’re going, ‘Well, let’s take it easy, let’s not move too fast,’ ” he said. Nonetheless, he added, “I think there has been a mindset (change). You talk to people now, and they’re excited when they see the trails and they see downtown. It’s amazing.”
McCoy added: “We actually have people moving to town with no jobs, because they’ve heard about the exciting times. … We’re not climbing the ladder as fast as you can, but we’re on a nice steady growth spurt.”
Ever the long-range planner McCoy – who turned 69 last fall – announced his retirement last August. The chamber’s board of directors is still in the process of hiring a permanent replacement, and a decision is expected soon. In the meantime, the interim president will be Scott Biederman, a chamber board member and partner with Musky Tank, a firm that aids local entrepreneurs.
McCoy’s last day on the job will be June 2, and a retirement party is planned for June 1 at The Lismore. And while you’ll be more likely to see him playing golf, fishing, and spending time with his grandkids after that, don’t expect McCoy to disappear from community life. He plans to volunteer for several nonprofit groups (including the Boy Scouts and Big Brothers Big Sisters), and he’ll remain involved in the chamber’s educational foundation, which oversees Leadership Eau Claire and several other programs.
“I’ve said since I came here that the chamber does things that most people think just happen,” McCoy explained. Through his continued work, McCoy will put this philosophy into action.