"Art was part of the design for what we wanted our city to be."
There was one main street through the middle of downtown, lined with shops. The classic downtown. But then we got the Walmart, so that changed everything. All those little shops closed on Main Street. Despite that, Sparta was a nice small town where everybody knew everybody.
Ever since I was young I loved theatre, and so sometimes I'd head to the La Crosse Center, which had bigger touring productions and shows. That kind of fed my interest in the arts, I ended up going to college in Eau Claire for theater. We did acting and directing and stagecraft and lighting and costume and all of it.
When you're a theater major you do shows constantly, two or three at a time sometimes. You’re rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing - with all of your good friends in dark rooms til it's dark outside. So during college, I was too busy to get out and enjoy Eau Claire, and I didn’t have a deep connection to the city.
Plus at that time, the town was suffering. A lot of the stores here were going under and not doing so well. When the mall was built in Eau Claire in the ‘80s, it pulled everything out of downtown. There was a great coffee shop, but other than that there were just a couple of dirty little bars where we would go to shoot pool and have a pitcher of beer after rehearsal. That was it. It wasn't a super-vibrant place.
So when I left after college, I didn't think I'd be back."
"After college I left Eau Claire - and Wisconsin - for a little awhile, but eventually I made it back home.
It was work that brought be back. A job opportunity, first in Madison, and now I'm back near family and friends in Eau Claire. And Eau Claire nowadays... it's like day and night from my college days. A LOT is going on. So many communities are now recognizing that they need a good strong downtown, and Eau Claire is a great example. We have a lot of reinvigoration.
There was a bar way back when, the Diamond Lounge, the ‘Dirty Diamond’, we called it. It was just kind of a seedy, dirty little spot, but now it’s called the Fire House. It's still a bar, but somebody put time and effort into really making it a totally new, reinvented, welcoming place.
Royal Credit Union made the choice to build their headquarters right downtown, in a spot where nobody else did. So they helped generate some of the tax revenue to help do the improvements, and it's really spiraled from there. The city decided to invest in the heart of town, and that's really spurred a lot of activity.
We’ve got some generous, big-money people that have invested right back into the community, but it can’t all be philanthropy, and so we’ve had to find new ways to do it, using the arts as inspiration and forming partnerships. In our latest renaissance over the last decade, our focus on the arts has been deliberate.
When we make a park, for example, we don’t just make a green space. We want to know what types of community events can take place in there. It’s, ‘Let’s have a little amphitheater here and some rocks people can sit on to enjoy a performance. Let’s make sure there is electric run to each corner, and flat space for different music… food trucks or tents.'
The sculpture tour is another one, started five or six years ago. There is a consortium of American cities that get together to organize it. Artists put in their sculptures and the cities pay a rental fee to borrow them. Then the sculptures go on tour between the cities. Along the way they can get sold — and Eau Claire has sold more sculptures than any other city.
Just north of downtown is Phoenix Park, which did not exist when I was in college. It was rundown, filled with old utility stuff, and you didn't go there because it was dark and scary. And now it's what's on every postcard of Eau Claire: the Farmer's Market at Phoenix Park. A summer concert series is there, too.
All of the artists that want to stick around here go to Banbury Place — an old tire factory that's been converted into loft apartments and office space and a lot of artist studio gallery space. The Banbury Art Crawl has been going on now for quite a few years, and that just brings in hundreds of people.
It wasn't accidental. Art was part of the design and part of what we wanted our downtown and our city to be.”
“Now I’m the director of the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center, and I want to engage as many people as I can to keep them connected to town.
At the arts center, we have a painting workshop for kids to learn about art, an art mobile to that drives to parks and events, and an improv festival where middle and high school kids can learn the craft. And for the college students, we want to partner with the university to get the students plugged into the community so they don't just want to pack up and leave.
You've got people like Justin Vernon and Zach Halmstad that are big names and could live anywhere, but they choose to live here, in their hometown. Zach's got a software company that should probably be in Chicago, Minneapolis, or on a coast - and he's got offices in all those places - but the headquarters are here. He said, ‘This is my hometown. I want to make sure that it stays strong, so I'm going to invest here, give people jobs here.’ And it’s the same thing with Justin with the Eaux Claires music festival and his recording studio, April Base Studios. He's really connected to his hometown. That’s really started shining a spotlight on a part of this community, the arts and culture scene.
The more involved you are with the arts, and the more you have the arts in your life, I think it just makes you a more creative thinker. A lot of the projects that Eau Claire has been able to accomplish, big and small, are sort of out-of-the-box.
Eau Claire is perfect for me. I'm not the type that has to be climbing different mountains every year and swimming to the bottom of that ocean. I like having a place I can call home and a place I can invest in and really have an impact on. The size of this community is perfect for someone like me. It's urban and rural. It's big enough and small enough. There are places I can go where I don't know anyone, and there are places I can be surrounded by everybody. I'm a big enough fish in a small enough pond that I can make a difference.
I've been able to help build community here and make friends and really make sure that the kids growing up here have a great Wisconsin and Midwest experience and have a good story to tell. And if I can help make that a better story through the arts and culture that we can provide, that's important.”
-Ben, Eau Claire WI