By Paul Schmitt
Community advocate and freelance writer Laurel Hauser says the city of Sturgeon Bay can learn from communities like Eau Claire and Wisconsin Rapids on the processes to engage the public in making big decisions on waterfront development. Hauser organized a group of 12 Sturgeon Bay citizens that visited Eau Claire in the spring of 2015. Hauser explains what impressed her most after visiting with city officials and developers.
Hauser singled out communities like Sister Bay, Jacksonport, and Baileys Harbor in the area as examples of municipalities that have figured out how best to develop their key properties. The written report from the Eau Claire/Phoenix Park visit from 2015 is posted below.
Submitted Report on Eau Claire/Phoenix Park Visit:
In recent years, Eau Claire turned a contaminated brownfield site into the cornerstone of a vibrant downtown that includes Royal Credit Union headquarters, JAMF Software, Riverview Apartments, Phoenix Park and Farmers Market. Eau Claire received the National Civic League’s All-American City Award not only for the 50 million dollar valuation they’ve injected into their downtown, but for the process they used to do it.
A group of eleven citizens spent three hours touring Phoenix Park and hearing presentations by city officials including the Council President, Redevelopment Authority Chair, Economic Development Director, City Attorney and Parks and Recreation Director. In addition to City representatives, the group heard from developers that have invested heavily in downtown. Finally, the group met the director of the Farmers Market Association.
Key components of Eau Claire’s success:
Community Input: Over 1 – 2 years, Eau Claire held 57 meetings to solicit community input and ensure that proposed changes were true to the city’s strategic plan and vision.
Citizen Advocates: A Farmers Market and Labyrinth were on the community’s wish list. The city worked with “citizen advocates” who raised funds to make each happen. The Farmers Market draws up to 7,000 visitors a week.
Natural Resources: According to Council President Kerry Kincaid, the Eau Claire community cares strongly about its river. She advises, “Ask yourself what relationship you want to have with your most important natural resource? People value the water, and we are working to provide as much visible and physical access to it as possible.” Eau Claire’s city parks are connected by 29 miles of trails, second only to Madison. Eau Claire is actively engaged in extending its public space.
Private/Public Partnership: The Royal Credit Union (RCU) first intended to build directly on the river. After hearing from the community, they moved off the river, allowing space for Phoenix Park. According to RCU’s Randy Beck, “When we found out people wanted a park, we made it happen. A happy community is good for business.” RCU and next-door neighbor, JAMF Software, now overlook an attractive green space. Bikers and walkers are visible on the repurposed railway bridge that spans the Chippewa River and JAMF Software has even installed an air pump for the tubers who float past their office. Eau Claire calls JAMF a “home run” for the city because it is non-polluting, high growth and pays high wages. JAMF brings energy to the downtown with a young work force that embodies “new urbanism.” JAMF is a dog-friendly office and many of the employees walk or bike to work.
Downtown Residents: Riverview Terrace Apartments built three new structures across from Phoenix Park. The 111 apartments enjoy a near 100% occupancy rate. When asked what part the park and water view played in their decision to invest, developer Stuart Shaefer said, “It was the deciding factor. People want to live near the park.”
TIF Districts: Phoenix Park was funded, in part, by tax incremental financing. Steve Nick, City Attorney, stressed the need to make sure development is consistent with city goals, to do background checks on developers and, if possible, to get developers’ lenders to the table. He emphasized the need for a good fit and asked, “Who are you going to sell your valuable land to?”
By all accounts, Eau Claire’s hard work has paid off. Children laughed and chased each other over the boulders that line the shoreline. Walkers and bikers were out en masse enjoying the views at the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire Rivers. Attractive office buildings and apartments stand side-by-side and street-level retail establishments service the people who live and work in the area.
For all their success, Nick acknowledges that there have been some detractors. “There will always be some. It means you’re making things happen. When nothing was happening, no one was protesting the brownfield. But, if you’re doing what the community wants, there will be more supporters.” President Kincaid’s final words: “Encourage civic engagement, let the natural beauty of the area speak to you and be patient with each other.”