The small Wisconsin city is enjoying a cultural revival, thanks to its gorgeous setting, a few well-placed boosters, and a knack for smart development.
Justin Green lived in Austin, Texas, most of his life. He opened a music studio there, got married, and had two kids. But by 2016, the 31-year-old felt it was time to leave behind the heat, crowds, and costs of the state’s fast-growing capital.
He thought about Madison, Wisconsin, with its strong music scene. But bands kept telling Green to look further north, to Eau Claire. The town is known to indie music fans as the home of the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival, a two-day event co-founded and curated by singer-songwriter Justin Vernon of the band Bon Iver, who grew up there. So Green and his wife paid a visit.
“We were just like, ‘Holy shit! This place is awesome,’” says Green, who moved to Eau Claire and opened his new studio a year ago. “I got that vibe that this was what Austin used to be before it blew up—an actual small-town feel in a fairly large-sized city.”
The story of Eau Claire, a Wisconsin town seated at the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers, mirrors that of many industrial towns in the upper Midwest and Rust Belt: Founded in the mid-19th century, lumber drove its early growth. Manufacturing took over in the early 20th century and sparked an extended boom. But by the 1980s, the town’s economic fortunes were shifting. In 1992, the Uniroyal tire plant closed, putting more than 1,350 out of work. As with many smaller cities, retail started to shift to the city’s edge. By 2002, when Eau Claire journalist Nick Meyer founded the local culture magazine Volume One, “downtown had been left for dead,” he says.
But Eau Claire began to reawaken. City officials started cleaning up blighted properties on the waterfront, and in 2003, Royal Credit Union, a local banking outfit that once serviced Uniroyal employees, chose an old industrial site at the rivers’ confluence for its new headquarters. The city quickly built a showcase park on the water across the street. With a gorgeous setting, a Saturday farmers’ market, and a concert series, the aptly named Phoenix Park gave downtown signs of life.
The tipping point came in 2012: Arts advocates, the city, the state, and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (UWEC) joined forces on the $85 million Confluence Arts Center. Previous big projects proposed for downtown had failed to gain approval, but Confluence’s critical mass of partners overcame some mild opposition. When it’s completed next year, across from Phoenix Park, it’ll have two theaters, apartments, retail space, and a pedestrian plaza, along with artist and technical training facilities.
According to the city, the Confluence Center has sparked $120 million in nearby investment. Once it was greenlit, craft breweries, locavore restaurants, and boutique hotels started springing up downtown. JAMF, a fast-growing tech firm that makes software for Apple, built its new HQ next to Phoenix Park. The old Uniroyal plant is now Banbury Place, a business incubator with 125 tenants and 500 jobs. And in 2015, Justin Vernon launched the first Eaux Claires Festival in the woodsy outskirts of town. In 2017, the event featured headliners Paul Simon, Chance the Rapper, Feist, and Wilco. What Meyer calls “the Bon Iver factor” has helped draw a wave of national attention to the town over the last year.
But Eau Claire’s biggest project is still in the planning stages: a 34-acre riverfront recreation and sporting complex to be shared by UWEC, the local YMCA, and the Mayo Clinic. Eau Claire’s population, approaching 70,000, has increased nearly 18 percent since 1990: The town is growing faster than all Wisconsin cities except Madison.
“Right now out my window I can see the construction cranes building the Confluence Center, and it’s kind of the heartbeat of the progress here,” says Meyer, who launched the Phoenix Park concert series in 2006. “Today we’ve got all the momentum.”
That momentum is drawing new residents from from the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, Chicago, and further afield. Elizabeth de Cleyre and her husband moved here from Portland in December after attending last year’s Eaux Claires festival. Their Portland rent shot up in early 2016, providing a key incentive.
“We felt very comfortable here,” says de Cleyre, a freelance writer who’s opening a bookstore with two partners, one of whom just arrived from Oakland. “We felt like the city was prioritizing arts and culture, fostering a creative economy.”
For other ex-industrial towns looking to follow in Eau Claire’s footsteps, locals cite several critical factors that helped spur the turnaround.
First, it embraced its setting—by building along its riverfront, long seen as a place for industry, and adding new parks on the two lakes in town and new trails in the surrounding hills and forests. Second, the city cultivated a culture of collaboration. “Maybe it’s a ‘Midwest nice’ thing,” says Meyer. Many key figures work together on boards and know each other, and there’s a sense now that the rising tide will lift all boats. “When a community is on its way up, there’s no sense protecting what’s yours.”
Phoenix Park came about because Royal Credit Union built its HQ across the street from the riverfront, rather than right on it—handing the city the ideal park space. The Confluence might be billed as an amenity for the city’s arts scene, but it went forward because business leaders convinced city officials that it was a good economic development tool, says UWEC Chancellor James Schmidt: “We’re able to do more with less when diverse partners come together.”
Schmidt’s employer is the third key. UWEC’s 11,000 students—nearly a 6th of the town’s population—give the city a steady stream of educated young professionals and well-connected local boosters: Most major Eau Claire projects are linked to UWEC alums, from Bon Iver’s Vernon to former Royal Credit Union CEO Charlie Glossklaus. UWEC also helped nurture the city’s deep musical roots and speed the city’s cultural revival. In the 1960s, jazz composer Dominic Spera led the UWEC jazz program to national prominence. In April, Downbeat named UWEC the best undergraduate big band in the U.S.—for the seventh time. The Eau Claire area has a dozen live music venues and hosts 6 major music festivals; in addition to Bon Iver, bands like Arms Aloft and Laarks have also found success in recent years.
To Meyer, Vernon’s Eaux Claires festival is the crown jewel of the city’s reawakening. Its 20,000-plus attendees deliver about $7 million in annual economic impact. “It draws great crowds and great media attention. It spreads the word that something is really happening in this little Wisconsin town.”
Just how much more is likely to happen? The limits of Eau Claire’s boom may be geographical: The city is somewhat remote—90 miles from Minneapolis, the nearest major city, and more than 240 to Milwaukee, with just 2 daily flights from O’Hare arriving at the local airport. Northern Wisconsin winters are long and often brutal. It’s also not yet clear whether these new upmarket businesses will succeed over the longer term—and how the town might change if they do.
“What keeps me awake is how fragile all this is,” says Meyer. “How long can we sustain this energy? Are the jobs there to support people if they keep coming here? Do we have entrepreneurial ideas that can scale? That’s going to take a few years to play out.”