Reflecting on Renewal

Schatz looks back on role in economic, downtown development

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth

Eau Claire Economic Development Administrator Mike Schatz, shown with the new Confluence Crossing pedestrian bridges behind him, will retire Sept. 28.
Eau Claire Economic Development Administrator Mike Schatz, shown with the new Confluence Crossing pedestrian bridges behind him, will retire Sept. 28.

From the closing of Uniroyal to the development of Phoenix Park to the blossoming of the Pablo Center at the Confluence, Mike Schatz has been near the center of nearly every major event that has impacted Eau Claire’s economy over the past three decades.Through countless public meetings, behind-the-scenes discussions, and media interviews, Schatz has been the fact of economic development and downtown revitalization in a city that has remade itself in the 21st century.

Now Schatz – the city’s economic development administrator as well as executive director of both Downtown Eau Claire Inc. and the city’s Redevelopment Authority – plans to retire effective Sept. 28. Volume One recently talked with Schatz about his tenure with the city, the challenges he’s faced, and what’s coming in the future.

Volume One: What was Eau Claire like in 1985?

Mike Schatz: That was about the time most of the department stores were fleeing the downtown and going to malls. It was also the time that a lot of our heavy industrial companies were starting to close down, and it was at a time when I think the business community was having issues with local government and not feeling they were represented. ... My first job, what I consider very important and an accomplishment, was to develop trust with the businesses in the area that they did have an advocate in local government that would work on behalf of their needs.

How have these relationships changed?

If you look in the Gateway Industrial Park or in Sky Park (Industrial Center), almost every single one of those businesses I’ve either brought to the community or worked with them to expand. I think instead of just submitting their applications, site plans, and things like that, they’ll call me to say, “Hey, can you watch this through the process, make sure it’s being reviewed?”

How vital is the downtown to the city’s economy, and how did developing downtown became part of your job?

In my early days in economic development, I was not in charge of downtown. … In 2001 when the city did the study with HyettPalma to create the Downtown Action Agenda, one of the major recommendations was to hire a high-powered, highly-paid executive director and create a new organization. Well, they created the new organization but they didn’t hire the high-powered, high-salaried person – they just gave it to me. (Laughs.) But it was at that point that I started giving emphasis to downtown. I knew that we had to make improvements: Businesses had fled the downtown, the private sector was not making investments in the businesses, there were a lot of vacancies, and it was deteriorating. To the (City) Council’s credit at that time, they stepped up and created this new organization called DECI and started a big process to revitalize downtown. ...

I think a lot of the early emphasis was on infrastructure, bike trails, new parks like Phoenix Park, bringing to light the musicians and artists and quality of life amenities that people want in a community. And then through my job with the Redevelopment Authority, we had to step up again because the private sector wasn’t, to create sites that took advantage of our natural resources, beauty, and the two rivers. Once we created sites, we had to find developers who were willing to take the risk to show how housing and mixed-use buildings and how businesses could be successful downtown.

I imagine there’s been tension in your job between developing downtown and other previously industrialized areas who might say, “Hey, we could use help, too.” How do you balance that?

I think (balance is) the key word. ... I had to balance the three jobs knowing sometimes that what the businesses wanted might not be what the council wanted or the city. How to know what hat to be wearing to be consistent with the message that went out to everybody, and I hope people feel I did a good job of balancing those different points of view.

Second of all, at the same time downtown was deteriorating, we were losing our industrial base, new technology was taking over for old technology, a lot of union companies were moving out of town, and so we were kind of losing that blue collar focus that had been in Eau Claire for years. … The big challenge came to a head when Uniroyal closed. … How do we diversity our economy so that doesn’t happen again? How do we replace the jobs that were lost? How do we help the people who lost their jobs? That was a major challenge in 1991, ’92. I think I responded well, brought in companies like HTI, which is TDK now, the second Nestle plant, UnitedHealth Group, Minnesota Wire, some of the big ones that have kept growing or stabilized and stayed here.

Wages here have often been relatively low. Have we made progress on that?

Slowly but surely the trend is up, but it’s not something that happens overnight. And a lot of it now has to do with the education levels, the skill levels. When you look at a Jamf Software that pays probably $65,000 or so to start, those are the types of businesses that we’ve been trying to work with.

What other progress do you see?

You don’t want to be tied to one single industry, as we found out with the rubber industry and Uniroyal. I think we’ve made great progress on that. Keeping people – or bringing people back that leave from the university – has been a major issue, and I think we’ve made substantial inroads there with people who now stay but more importantly people who come back, kids that come back because they like what the community has become.

The other thing I think is just the notion of how conservative our community was, trying to break through those barriers and notions that things can’t be done here. I remember (businessman) Dick Larson once telling me, “Mike, the only reason you’ve been successful here is you’re too naive to know you can’t do this in Eau Claire.” And he was being kind: He meant “stupid,” but he used the word “naive.”

Do you think there has been a shift in attitude?

I do. If there’s one thing I’m most proud of, I would say it’s the community’s attitudes towards itself. … I love it when my friends tell me, “My son or daughter told me they’d never move back here, but they’re taking a job here or there, and they’ve bought a house, and they love what’s going on.” Or I hear from people who said, “I came here to go to a music festival or something, and I came downtown, I saw what was going on, and boy, I think I can be part of that.”

There’s a flip side to downtown development: The neighborhood is higher end, it’s cleaner, it’s safer, but the community’s problems don’t vanish.

Part of the problem is that when you build new, you have a higher cost of construction so the developers then have to charge more because they aren’t in the business of losing money, so then you have to have people that can afford it, and of course our community has proven they can. … But on the flip side there’s people – the waitresses, the waiters, the people in the service industry – that still need housing. ... You’re hearing a lot of discussion about gentrification, the homeless, and such, and I think those are good conversations to have.

We’re on the eve of the Pablo Center opening. Is hitching our wagon to the creative economy going to pay off?

Let me try to answer several ways. First of all, to me while the Pablo Center is one of our most visible successful partnerships … I have never thought it was the only wagon in town. I think it’s just part of that overall growth we’ve had in economic development in downtown, and an amazing part of it, but the housing, people moving back downtown, RCU’s corporate headquarters, all took place before the Confluence (Project). … (People) want to be near things, they don’t want to use the automobile as much, they don’t have the time to be driving a lot, they want their recreation, their entertainment, all consistently close, and they want to take advantage of the natural resources like the rivers. With that in mind, we’ve got some strengths for downtown that just don’t revolve around the creative economy.

When you look forward, what things are still in progress or will have to be done in the next few years by your successor?

One of the sadnesses about leaving is that some of the things I was working on aren’t finished. I would have liked to have already had a solid proposal for Block 7 and the liner building (on North Barstow). I would have liked to have seen a little bit more going in the Cannery District, though I have a lot in the pipeline that I’m handing off.

Will you stick around after retirement?

Oh yeah, absolutely. Eau Claire will always be a part of me. … My kids are all here. I would say that’s a statement in itself: That my kids didn’t flee me, and they didn’t flee their community, because they love it here. They’re 27 to 37, three of them. That’s pretty cool that they get to take advantage of their dad’s hard work.