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Lisa G

PAR Data Story

December 12, 2000

 

As in many communities, urban sprawl has taken its toll on Eau Claire’s downtown area. The total percentage growth for the city is 145.8 percent over a 12-year period, whereas the central business district’s total percentage growth is 39.5 percent over the same period, according to city property assessment records (See tables).  

Whether a direct result of sprawl, the city’s central business district has a lower growth rate than the city at large, the records said. The central business district’s borders are the Eau Claire River to the north, the Chippewa River along Graham Avenue to the west, east to the intersection of Talmadge and Main streets, and to Earl Street to the south, according to City Assessor Al Andreo.

The 12 percent increase in the percentage change of the central business district between 1994 and 1996 is due to a change in assessment ratio, which was driven mostly by residential, rather than commercial, property, Andreo said. 

“(It’s) due more to citywide inflationary adjustment than economic growth,” he said.

The downtown, or city center, extends over a large portion of the city, covering the central business district (south of the Eau Claire River), the northern business area (north of the Eau Claire River and east to Banbury Place), the Bellinger Street area (including Luther-Midelfort Hospital), and the West Grand Avenue area (including the county courthouse), according to the Eau Claire City Center Plan. 

The city center has more than 10,000 employees, according to an Eau Claire City Center Corp. brochure.

The Vermont Forum on Sprawl concisely defines sprawl as "dispersed development outside of compact urban and village centers along highways and in rural countryside." In Eau Claire, the effects of urban sprawl in the downtown include buildings that have been left vacant and retail stores that have relocated.

One change on the city’s outskirts that has hurt the downtown’s economy is the building of several shopping malls along Highway 53. In 1972, Eau Claire’s first mall, the 575,000-square-foot London Square Mall, was built. Oakwood Mall followed in 1986 and was approximately 350,900 square feet when constructed. 

With the arrival of the malls, many major retailers left the downtown area, said Doug Adams-Arman, City Center Corporation executive director. 

“The malls came and took a lot of the anchor stores out,” he said. 

JCPenney, for example, changed locations from its downtown store at 312 Barstow St. to Oakwood Mall in 1987.

“The trend in the last 20 years has been to get a more central location for their businesses like malls on the outskirts of town,” said Dennis Berry, a City Council representative on the Plan Commission from April 1999 until April 2000. “You can’t put an Oakwood Mall in the middle of downtown.”

“In most towns in the U.S. the retail stores went out to the malls by the major highways,” City Planner Darryl Tufte said.  

A more recent cause of economic hardship in the downtown area was the closing of the Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. in June 1992. That put approximately 1,400 people out of work.

“Uniroyal was one of the largest companies in Eau Claire,” Adams-Arman said.

Since the disappearance of Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. and many retail businesses from the downtown, the city and City Center Corp. have been working together. 

City Center Corp. is a non-profit organization whose goal is “to enhance and revitalize Eau Claire’s original business district through the elements of organization, promotion, design and economic restructuring,” according to the company’s mission statement. 

City Center Corp. receives funding from the City of Eau Claire, federal and state grants, and private contributions from member businesses and individuals, Adams-Arman said. 

Adams-Arman says the downtown area is important to the overall health of the community. 

“Without a downtown, you don’t have a city. Malls are great to have, but every place in America has them,” Adams-Arman said. “What makes cities unique is their downtown.

“You can survive without an arm or a leg, but you can’t survive without your heart. Downtown is the heart of the city, where commerce (takes place) and government is run.”

Today, the majority of businesses in the city center are service-oriented, rather than retail-based, he said. 

Currently in the city center, 45 of the 500 businesses are retail, and there are more than 60 office vacancies for sale or rental, according to Eau Claire City Center Corporation’s Web site. 

“Downtown will never be the retail hub that it once was,” Adams-Arman said. “Many cities are going through this transition as well.”

Though other cities in America have experienced the effect of urban sprawl, Adams-Arman says Eau Claire is a unique case.

“It’s really hard to compare Eau Claire to any other city” because people don’t have to go downtown to live in the city due to the many highways surrounding the area, Adams-Arman said. 

However, he said that this has not made people care less about the downtown.

“I think it’s just the way Eau Claire has grown and there’s a trend for people to move back downtown,” he said.

There are those who feel that urban sprawl has not been a problem for Eau Claire’s downtown area. The shopping malls were part of the city’s planned development, not urban sprawl, Tufte said. 

“It’s a natural expansion growth of the community,” he said. “It’s a very planned community from the city’s perspective.”

“Most of the sprawl development occurring around the city is occurring around the townships,” he said. “The Fox Valley area has a lot more sprawl.

“Townships approve development to increase their tax base. It’s not based on community expansion or neighborhood development.”

 

Lisa Grabowski

PAR Expert story

December 12, 2000

 

Urban sprawl has left Eau Claire’s downtown area with a loss of retail businesses and numerous vacant buildings. City officials and City Center Corporation are working independently and in cooperation to develop and carry out plans to make the city center a place with more service-oriented businesses, specialized retail, parks, and cultural activities.

The downtown, or city center, extends over a large portion of the city, covering the central business district (south of the Eau Claire River), the northern business area (north of the Eau Claire River and east to Banbury Place), the Bellinger Street area (including Luther-Midelfort Hospital), and the West Grand Avenue area (including the county courthouse), according to the Eau Claire City Center Plan. 

The Plan Commission, a division of the Department of Community Development, laid out general goals for the downtown area in its 1992 Comprehensive Plan.

“The downtown area, geographically, is much larger now than what was included in past plans,” City Planner Darryl Tufte said, referring to the recent inclusion of Banbury Place, the County Courthouse, and Luther-Midelfort Hospital in the city center.

The overarching goal was to “transform the greater downtown area into a major business, cultural, and convention center,” the plan said. 

According to the plan, this would be accomplished in several ways, including strengthening the downtown’s position as the regional center for culture, leisure, office and government and providing ongoing public investment and improvements in the downtown to attract increased private investment. Other methods include encouraging development patterns and roadway systems supportive of the downtown and redeveloping blighted areas in the downtown.

The city’s specific means for carrying out these goals have been laid down in the City Center Plan, last updated in 1995. The Department of Community Development has been implementing the plan, and will be developing a new plan in the near future, Tufte said.

The overall goal of the City Center Plan is “to evolve (the city center) toward an intensively developed, multi-purpose area emphasizing pedestrian activity, historic preservation, riverfront recreation, and one-of-a-kind regional facilities,” the plan said.

One of the primary goals listed in the City Center Plan is to increase the city center’s share of the regional market in the areas of office, entertainment, medical services, specialty retail sales and services, and multiple-family housing. According to the plan, “the city center should be primarily, but not exclusively, an office center.”

 Another goal is to accommodate Luther-Midelfort Hospital expansion through land use planning and infrastructure improvements. Retaining existing businesses and recruiting new businesses are also general objectives. 

Tufte estimated that 75 percent of the City Center Plan’s objectives have been completed or are currently under way.

The former Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. facility has been transformed into Banbury Place, an approximately two-million-square-foot area that includes offices, restaurants, and a day care facility, among other things, Tufte said. Luther-Midelfort Hospital has more than doubled in size, and the County Courthouse has built an addition, he said.

Tufte said the Department of Community Development evaluates its success at annual meetings by determining how many projects on the City Center Plan have been completed.  The Plan Commission approves its Capital Improvement Plan at the meetings as well. The plan incorporates City Council-approved, citywide projects to improve streets, sewer, and water systems. Projects are added based upon how well current projects are being completed, Tufte said. 

“Eau Claire probably has one of the more aggressive planning development programs in the state,” he said. 

One current project within the city center is Phoenix Park on the former Phoenix steel property on NSP (Northern States Power) Point, Tufte said. Tentatively, the park may have various walking paths, bike trails, ball fields, and space for a farmer’s market, City Center Corp.’s Spring 2000 City Center Update said. Tufte said several flood-prone properties have been acquired by the city for the park. 

“The (Department of Community Development) spends money to assemble land for redevelopment projects,” Tufte said. “The city spends a lot of its energy in industrial recruitment. City Center (Corp.) does most of the work attracting businesses.”

Developers, City Center Corp. and city loan programs help the downtown acquire new businesses and fill vacancies, Tufte said.

As of Dec. 12, the city center had approximately 60 office vacancies for sale or rental, according to City Center Corp.’s Web site.

One loan program, the Clearwater Loan Pool, administered by City Center Corp., “offers financing alternatives to create incentives for development and/or location in the city center,” according to a City Center Corp. brochure. The Code Compliance Loan provides financing at zero percent interest to address code violations in commercial structures, the brochure said. The Development Zone gives businesses tax credits for job creation throughout the city center, the brochure said. 

In the city center area, office space rental averages $7 to $10 per square foot, depending on quality, size and location, according to the brochure. 

Tufte said that he does not foresee a substantial change from the current City Center Plan in the next plan.

“Planning is a continual process that never ends,” he said. 

Eau Claire City Center Corp. also has its own plans to assist the more than 500 businesses located in the city center and to bring new businesses to the area.

City Center Corp. is a non-profit organization whose goal is “to enhance and revitalize Eau Claire’s original business district through the elements of organization, promotion, design and economic restructuring,” according to the company’s mission statement.

“City Center Corp. helps people with business ideas to get started,” said Executive Director Doug Adams-Arman.

Adams-Arman said urban sprawl has affected the downtown, but steps are being taken to improve the area. 

“I’m not in favor of urban sprawls,” he said. “I see urban sprawl as this large monster that overshadows everything. We need to bring the sun back to stop the shadow.

“I believe that they (the city) recognize (urban sprawl) and that’s where we’d like to see more housing down here, and the neighborhoods taking a role in being active in rejuvenating their downtown.” 

Tufte and Adams-Arman said second-floor space in the city center is being used for housing rather than left vacant. Adams-Arman said there are currently around 8,000 downtown residents.  

“At 5 p.m. this place shuts down,” Adams-Arman said. “If people have commodities like grocery stores down here and live down here, the lights won’t go off so much.”

He also hopes to draw more students from the local university and technical college to the downtown.

“Our board’s vision is to see more bookstores, restaurants, entertainment, art galleries, and specialty shops with people living above them on the second floor,” he said.

“Downtown will never be the retail hub that it once was,” Adams-Arman said. “Many cities are going through this transition as well.

“You’re going to see a lot more businesses like law offices, accountants, service-oriented companies’ offices,” he said.

In addition to providing information about loan programs, City Center Corp. takes part in various city center projects and events, such as the New Year’s Eve Gala at the State Theater, the Burger King Classic Car and Cruise Show, and the Old-fashioned Carnival. 

City Center Corp. also distributes several publications, including The Watermark Weekly, a facsimile publication sent to businesses to inform them of upcoming events and activities in the downtown area, and the Business and Entertainment Directory, which provides a listing of all the businesses located in the city center district. In addition, City Center Corp. has a Web site, www.city-center.org, containing information on local businesses, real estate, upcoming events, etc.

Through these activities, City Center Corp. and the Department of Community Development hope to achieve their vision of downtown rejuvenation. 



Lisa Grabowski

PAR People Story

December 13, 2000

As City Center Corporation and the city Department of Community Development proceed with their plans for downtown development, local businesses and residents seem to agree the downtown needs improvement, though they do not necessarily like the plans that have been laid out (See expert story for details). 

The downtown, or city center, extends over a large portion of the city, covering the central business district (south of the Eau Claire River), the northern business area (north of the Eau Claire River and east to Banbury Place), the Bellinger Street area (including Luther-Midelfort Hospital), and the West Grand Avenue area (including the county courthouse), according to the Eau Claire City Center Plan. 

Kim Berry, the manager of Acoustic Café, 505 S. Barstow St., says urban sprawl has affected the downtown. 

“The bigger companies moved out,” she said. “The small, family, specialized businesses (like a quilting store and an interior decorating firm) are left.”

One problem Berry said the downtown has is poor parking.

“The parking could be better, but they (the city) did change the one-hour to two-hour limit on on-street parking. There’s a parking ramp now,” Berry said. “The parking situation is not the best, but it’s okay.”

Berry said the responsibility for making these changes falls on City Center Corporation. 

City Center Corp. is a non-profit organization whose goal is “to enhance and revitalize Eau Claire’s original business district through the elements of organization, promotion, design and economic restructuring,” according to the company’s mission statement. 

“Having a plan is one thing, but following through with it is something else,” Berry said when told of the corporation’s vision for the city center. “If they can pull that off I think that would be great, but I guess that as long as that corporation has been around, I haven’t really seen them doing anything.”

Berry has her own vision for the downtown.

“I think that the storefronts need to be filled with more retail shops,” she said. “For people to want to come down here there needs to be something down here for them. 

“I would think, personally, it doesn’t need any more restaurants. It would be nice to see some kind of clothing or shoe store to give people a variety of things to do.”

Berry says the downtown still offers plenty to attract visitors in the evening.

“People go to the budget theater or the restaurants,” she said. “All the office buildings and retail stores close, but there are other things to do.”

Berry has several recommendations for City Center Corp. 

“I think the first place they need to start is to fill up the storefronts and fix the streets, make a decision whether it (should) be one-way down here.”

Others say they recognize the city’s efforts and are pleased with the results.

“(The Department of Community development) does a very good job,” said Dennis Berry, a City Council representative on the Plan Commission from April 1999 until April 2000. “Mike Schatz (Economic Development administrator) and his assistant do most of the work bringing businesses to Eau Claire.”

Berry said recruiting new business is a difficult task for the city because it must solicit them without offering tax breaks or other bargains.

“Most of the public is very pleased with (the downtown),” City Planner Darryl Tufte said. “You hear from a few who think it’s great and the majority you don’t hear from, which in my mind means they’re happy, otherwise they’d be complaining.”

 

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