Well-Laid Plans: Retiring Chippewa Falls city planner looks back at transformative career

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth

Downtown Chippewa Falls
Downtown Chippewa Falls

It’s safe to say that Chippewa Falls, circa 2017, wouldn’t look much like it does if Jayson Smith hadn’t taken a job there as city planner in 1981. Other than hoisting plenty of ceremonial shovels, Smith hasn’t literally built any of the city’s major projects. However, figuratively speaking he’s done plenty of heavy lifting on everything from downtown revitalization to huge highway projects to multimillion-dollar riverside renovations.

Smith, who will retire Jan. 8, is matter-of-fact about the scores of projects he’s helped bring to fruition – after 36 years, they literally fill page after page – but he’s grateful for the numerous elected officials and citizens who’ve made these undertakings possible. Particularly in Chippewa Falls’ downtown, he said, early successes in revitalizing historic buildings had a domino effect. “You see one person do it and it’s successful and you say, ‘I want to do that,’ ” Smith said.

“It’s been a heck of a run. It’s been a wonderful community to work for, a wonderful community to work with.” – Jayson Smith, who is retiring Jan. 8 after 36 years as Chippewa Falls city planner

But things began to change by the late 1980s. Like countless American cities, the commercial balance in Chippewa Falls was shifting away from its historic downtown as department stores and other larger businesses closed or moved to the city’s edges. Smith was part of a group that explored signing the city up for Wisconsin’s newly minted Main Street Program, which was dedicated to helping communities turn the tide against their downtowns’ decline. Chippewa Falls became a Main Street community in 1989, and Smith and other local leaders set to work improving the city’s downtown with the help of a variety of public and private tools, including Tax Increment Financing.A graduate of Michigan State University, Smith came to the Chippewa Valley in 1981 for a job with the West Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission in Eau Claire. At the time, the city of Chippewa Falls contracted with the regional planning group for a part-time city planner, which became Smith’s job. By 1988, the role had grown and Smith was hired as a full-time employee by the city. In the early years, Smith’s job was focused on traditional city planning functions: updating the comprehensive plan, revising zoning ordinances, applying for grants.

Riverfront Park, Chippewa Falls
Riverfront Park, Chippewa Falls

Among the first major downtown efforts was the transformation of a defunct, derelict shoe factory on West River Street into low-income apartments. “I know that there were skeptics, without a question, when we started working on that project,” Smith said. In fact, he admits to being one of them: When the developer, Warren Loveland of La Crosse, said he would need $600,000 to $800,000 in public financing for the project to succeed, Smith thought that sounded crazy. Nonetheless, Smith began to work on the project, assembling a basket of funding sources – including a TIF district, Community Development Block Grants, and low-income housing tax credits – that eventually totaled roughly that amount. More than 20 years later, the 32-unit apartment building is still operating successfully, and it’s proved to be a model for the ongoing redevelopment of Chippewa Falls. “It ended up being one of the most fantastic projects I’ve worked on,” Smith added.

The Shoe Factory project was aided by the first TIF district Smith worked on; now the city has created 14 of them (five of which have closed). These districts – in which infrastructure improvements and other incentives for private businesses are funded from increased taxes collected on those businesses’ property – have aided in everything from creating industrial parks to the Leinie’s Lodge to Riverfront Park, the new gateway to the downtown along the Chippewa River.

The latter project – which involved transforming a swathe of disused industrial land into a beautiful park – is a particular point of pride for Smith. When all is said and done it will be a $15 million to $18 million undertaking, which he said is an unusual ambitious undertaking for a city the size of Chippewa Falls.

During his tenure, Smith has worked with six Chippewa Falls mayors, most recently Greg Hoffman, who has held the office since 2008. Hoffman lauded Smith for his knowledge, talent, and leadership. “Jayson has an excellent vision for the future, but he also has a good sense of the past,” Hoffman said. In particular, Hoffman said Smith’s commitment to the Main Street Program has helped Chippewa Falls’ downtown evolve while retaining its famous charm. And he added that Smith has also overseen the development and growth of the city’s industrial parks, helping businesses locate, expand, and add jobs in the area. “He’s been able to see what do we need to do, how do we get the infrastructure in place,” Hoffman said. “Jayson was shovel-ready before the term was ever coined.” Smith has no immediate plans after retirement, though he does intend to stay in the area. Even in retirement, he will still be a resource for city leaders, and he’ll be able to enjoy the community he helped build. “It’s been a heck of a run,” Smith said. “It’s been a wonderful community to work for, a wonderful community to work with.”