If you build it, we will come
The life on the streets of South Barstow, South Farwell and Graham was very different several decades ago. On weekends and nights, the streets were flooded with people piling in to see the latest feature films or go shopping. State Theatre was the cornerstone for entertainment and the nightlife with a bowling alley, caf and billiards hall and, of course, a theater.
So what happened to Eau Claire’s downtown? Why is it that many people don’t even know where it is? Why do businesses come and go like the latest flash-in-the-pan pop stars on the radio?
The answer is by no means simple and has been slaved over for more than 25 years at the city council level. In 1982, for example, the city invited Frank Stone to downtown Eau Claire with the purchase and development of a Barnes Block building to be called Stones Throw. In an interview with the Leader-Telegram, Stone said downtown is coming back with plenty of useable buildings and opportunities for growth. Two years later, Stone went bankrupt, joining several other former business owners that had tried their luck in the downtown area.
In 1986, then City Council President Shirley Crinion was very supportive of giving State Theatre a face lift, saying it would be an important component of a revitalized downtown.
One aspect that has not been addressed in the revitalization effort is the student population of Eau Claire.
The student population is of interest for several community members and groups. The Third Ward, for example, doesn’t seem to exactly see eye-to-eye with them about parking issues. For the rest of the community, however, we aren’t always the destructive, loud kids in drug- or alcohol-induced stupors that we’ve been made out
Looking at the crime statistics that are most commonly related to students (alcohol violations, theft, drug charges, etc.) it’s strange that in a city with such a large student population, these offenses are decreasing. Look at the last Homecoming to further this case.
The point is the community doesn’t need to see students as damaging to the economy (ask Water Street) or the community – we, in fact, boost it. The student population in the community is about one-seventh of the total population of Eau Claire. My suggestion is that downtown invites and advertises to the student population.
When I posed this idea during a conversation with Jen Roth, executive director of the Regional Arts Council, she replied, “You read my mind! There shouldn’t be a separation between campus and the downtown
In a recent survey led by Robert Sutton, a professor and the department chair of management and marketing, results showed that students have very little idea of downtown. “(The survey found that) students weren’t all that familiar with downtown,” he said, adding that it’s practically a non-entity in students’ minds. In an even more disturbing find, Roth said, many students thought downtown was Water Street.
So why don’t students go downtown or even know where it is? Other than bars and restaurants, downtown businesses don’t advertise to the students. They simply don’t know what’s going on.
How many students know that several of the buildings downtown are listed in the National Register of Landmarks? How many know that George Carlin will be in town soon? How many have visited the new children’s museum or public library? There are some hidden gems downtown as well, but not even I am familiar with all of them because I am just another oblivious student.
Obviously, the answer to revitalizing downtown isn’t simply inviting the student body, but it will help businesses last longer than a year or two. The revenue that can flow in from students flocking to downtown will trickle down into making everyone much happier.
If you’ve been keeping up with state news, La Crosse has recently received the honors of “best revitalized downtown” by Wisconsin Trails magazine. Downtown Main Street, Inc. is the mastermind behind the success, and I had the opportunity to speak with a representative recently.
Executive Director Bud Miyamoto said it was by no means a simple process. In 1992, Downtown Main Street, Inc. created a master plan called “city vision” for the revitalization of La Crosse’s downtown. It covered a multitude of goals, but a crucial part was combining the public and business sectors. “Without them, you’re just shooting arrows in the sky,” he said.
Another aspect Miyamoto said they kept in mind throughout the process was supporting the integration of all the campuses. Their hope was to benefit all the students by creating a vibrant downtown community.
Their downtown plan has taken over 10 years now, but Miyamoto said it’s a never-ending issue that they hope to continue exploring.
Eau Claire’s downtown has character and a great history. Everyone should be welcomed to enjoy the atmosphere and celebrate its success.
Kupfer is a senior print journalism major and managing editor of The Spectator.