How Eau Claire’s downtown district came to be

Downtown Eau Claire, Inc. encourages growth through creative economy

Lea Kopke

More stories from Lea Kopke


Photo by Kar Wei Cheng

Downtown Eau Claire has been in the process of a revitalization since the early 2000s and DECI played a large role in its transformation.

During any given weekend in Eau Claire, the downtown district is host to a bustling scene of community members enjoying the local coffee shops, musical performances and art displays.

Mike Schaats, the former Downtown Eau Claire, Inc. president said that just 20 years ago the downtown area was a starkly contrasting scene.

“There just wasn’t a creative economy in the downtown,” Schaats said. “Back in 2001 the city council felt something needed to be done for the downtown. Added resources needed to happen. They, with the help of other organizations, hired a company to do a thorough study of downtown.”

After conducting citizen surveys and interviewing stakeholders, Shaats said the company collected 99 recommendations for the downtown area. Included in this list was a proposal to create an organization whose focus was on the downtown area, which sparked the creation of DECI.

“Another recommendation was to hire a high paid director,” Schaats said. “The council didn’t agree, so they gave that title to me, as I was already the economic director and the ex-director of the Eau Claire Development Committee.”

DECI is made up of a board of members who decide what downtown issues to prioritize and act on. Board members include an array of people who represent business owners, neighborhoods and the individuals of downtown.

“The first board created several different committees that included marketing, festivals and special events, parking, arts and culture and executive,” Schaats said. “We took steps to work hard and fill vacant storefronts, and doubled our efforts to bring housing downtown.”

According to Schaats, a main focus of DECI was to push the creative economy. In 2006 the organization partnered with Volume One to put on an event called the Idea Lounge every three months or so.

“Idea Lounges were opportunities for the community to get together and talk about major issues in the downtown,” Schaats said. “There were also sessions on helping creative artists be good at business and the role of UW-Eau Claire in the downtown area.”

Today DECI continues to invest resources into growing the downtown district through partnering with local businesses and putting on free public events. Current president Steve Anderson, who has been on the DECI board since 2012, said he wants the public to be aware of what the organization’s role in downtown is.

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about who we are,” Anderson said. “We’re not a lending institution. DECI’s mission is to help downtown Eau Claire in a number of ways. It helps business and economic issues, assists in advertising, in cultivating the arts and really just the lifestyle of downtown.”

Throughout the year, DECI helps fund and organize downtown community events. These include the 52nd Street Jazz Festival, the International Fall Festival and an annual family day.

“When the time comes, DECI helps to advertise events, pay for banners, stuff like that,” Anderson said. “We do a lobbying role if businesses downtown want to convey a message and write letters of support for projects. Our mission is to encourage and develop economy, housing, arts and lifestyle.”

Since the initial efforts of DECI, new apartments and businesses have sprung up, and both the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce and Visit Eau Claire have moved back downtown. The organization has also united Eau Claire’s four business improvement districts to work together under the DECI umbrella. Schaats said he takes pride in the transformation the downtown district has undergone.

“If you look back at the Leader-Telegram’s Voice of the People, there were people telling us we’re crazy; it can’t be done,” Schaats said. “Now you see all these nice buildings, renovations, and the pride the community has in the downtown. It’s been amazing to be a part of how the downtown overcame hurdles and changed.”

Kopke can be reached at [email protected]